At the beginning of Rules for Old Men Waiting we come upon a weathered, somewhat dilapidated summer house in the woods on Cape Cod, and its sole remaining occupant, Robert MacIver, Scottish born and bred, a big man physically and morally, and in his youth a renowned rugby player. In his later years he had been a military historian of some distinction, a pioneer collector of oral accounts of soldiers from the trenches of World War I. By the time we meet him, in the first novel by Peter Pouncey (himself a retired professor of literature), MacIver knows he has an ailment that will end his days, but before that happens we see other losses overtake him. First of all, the death of his wife, Margaret, after a long, happy marriage. She had died in that house on the Cape, which had been their idyllic summer retreat for over thirty years, the place to which they had withdrawn altogether when her sickness was nearing its term. During their final months there he had deliberately chosen to ignore the upkeep of the building rather than allow her to be disturbed by invasions of repair crews, and so six months after her death, as the fall arrived, and then the snow, he faced a Massachusetts winter with a decrepit heating system and no firewood.
In the despair, dislocation, and inanition after his wife’s death he had at first gone to ground like any hurt animal, neglecting himself as well as the house, until the aimlessness of his days and consistent undernourishment set him helplessly adrift among hallucinations. Then at last he had made an effort to pull himself together and try to take charge of the remnant of his time. He was determined to face the winter, and his end, alone, with whatever dignity he could maintain, as the house he remembered with such depths of fondness went to ruin around him.
It was the cold, the onslaught of winter, that had roused him to his determination. The woodpile had been burned up back in the late spring, as he had tried to keep his wife warm through her last weeks:
He still had hot water for his shower, because that had an electric heater; but it was only a matter of time, he thought, before the ever-intrusive cold wrapped itself around some standing pipe and eventually burst it…. Lying in bed at night, often in his old navy greatcoat, he could hear the old house groaning around him…. Everything inside and everything outside frozen in its aches and pains to a tight immobility. One bold move and something would snap.
And finally did. He had been making one more effort: go out and glean something that would burn from around the exhausted woodpile or the edge of the woods. Slow and steady, no athletic moves. Except it was slow and jerky, at every step hating his own brittleness, his feeble shuffle-lurch, small, short mouse-breaths.
He had not got far, but he had got out the door. And then the frozen porch collapsed under him. He was pausing, planning the next step, and the porch, hitherto seemingly integral with the house, had skewed sideways and bowed; slightly wobbly undulations gave way slowly to a more systematic curve, a glazed path of least resistance, which he had slid down without injury….
The old four-square porch had given up on its rotting steps, and designed itself instead this ramp…. The effect was not ungraceful… but there was commotion inside him. Shock and shame for the house giving way…. He lay on the ramp counting his bones, and a sad resolution formed in his mind: I must retrench.
That moment and its resolution are the origin of the rules of the title, which MacIver evolves in the course of the following days, as “a plan to take back his life, until he could give it away on an acceptable basis.”
MacIver is a man of learning and of wide reading. His own resolution reminds him of “Descartes holing up by his winter stove to question the very foundation of things—exactly the kind of task he no longer needed to set himself” and of Cardinal Newman writing of Saint John in the wilderness having
to bear a length of years in loneliness, exile, and weakness…to experience the dreariness of being solitary, when those whom he loved had been summoned away. He had to live in his own thoughts, without familiar friend. He was a man moving his goods into a far country, who at intervals and by portions sends them before him, till his present abode is well nigh unfurnished.
The title of the book does not immediately suggest a particularly cheery, or even “lively,” subject, and what allure it has is probably made up largely of surprise and curiosity. It is said of our consumer society, in which images of violence and violent death are regular fare in the diet of advertising and “entertainment,” that in truth it harbors a deep reluctance, amounting to an inability, to face mortality as something actual and present, and surely its expressions of grief are often crippled by embarrassment. And yet the subjects of mortality and grief are still likely to touch off an ambivalent, half-curious fascination, if only because they are inescapable, universal, and irresolvable, and everyone knows it. (I think of a friend, a bit drunk at a party, alluding to prostate cancer as “a sort of sword of Damocles that hangs over us all,” and remember what the uneasy laugh around him sounded like.) The awareness of death in life, and the current of grief, may comprise a primal or even the primal subject, and may be the origin of poetry and of language itself.
The situation of Mr. Pouncey’s central character and the uncompromising conditions that he has to deal with, despite their immediate gloom, exercise a fascination that we cannot quite understand. We have felt the draw of it throughout literature, from the earliest laments and elegies to Emily Dickinson and the opening pages of J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg and Donald Hall’s Without. Whether or not we acknowledge it, we want another word on the subject, on which there is no last word. Mr. Pouncey’s handling of it in this novel does not, fortunately, exclude a light, recurrent streak of humor—not hilarity, certainly, but a wryness and irreverence that are a refreshing part of his protagonist’s nature and judgment, and his sense of proportion and of where he is headed. Mr. Pouncey presents him in the third person, but his tone, and his language, which is classically spare and condensed, convey an intimacy that makes it seem as though MacIver were telling his own story from its closing, summary phase.
The first rules MacIver made are plain and obvious, like rules for a camp for children: “1. Keep personally clean. 2. Make bed every morning… Eat regularly…” etc. He called them “a simple skeleton of the well-ordered life for a feeble old man.” But he began to elaborate. He needed firewood, and the black humor flicks through his deliberations on the subject, starting with the “Correct Order for Burning Household Objects,” which became
rules for dismantling/consuming the things of the past.
a) Retain the beautiful and useful.
b) Of wooden things, no articles of fine craftsmanship will be burnt. Consume journeyman chairs etc.
c) Margaret’s pictures to be kept. Otherwise, picture frames before pictures.
d) Books of rival scholars and other trash, before good books and my own.
When he went over the revised rules he “did not particularly like what he termed ‘their pissy hectoring tone,’ but he had to admit he had it coming to him. Now he would take hold….”
In fulfillment of his rule “4. Eat regularly,” he reviewed the food situation. He had made a huge shopping trip after Labor Day, filling two supermarket carts with supplies, and then had eaten very little of what he had brought back, but five months later he resolved to improve on that and even drew up sequences of menus for the days of the week. The telephone had been canceled but he had paid his electricity bill for six months and had arranged for the oil truck to keep the tank for the old furnace filled.
But his pivotal decision, the one that would summon and direct him, was to tell a story “to the end, not just shards, but the whole pot.” The story was to be his way of making something out of what he had come to recognize as his consuming anger:
The rage seems to be three-fold—at the incompleteness of things, that however hard you take stock, nothing tallies to a total; and at the fact that you are no longer your own person, thinking your own thoughts, but increasingly the prey of random images that assault you; and at the fact…that you were robbed long before the end of people you loved, and powers you had, and always pointlessly.
The story he comes to tell is about war and deception. It is made up from what the accounts he had garnered from the trenches of World War I suggest—images rising out of a rage of their own. And as he develops the story thread by thread, he is led back to his own experience of military action under fire, in the navy, and to meeting Margaret, and then to the other great personal loss of his life, that of the one son born to him and Margaret, a boy who had volunteered, as a student at Yale, for the Medical Corps in Vietnam, and had been wounded there, had had a leg amputated, and had been flown home, only to die unexpectedly in the hospital, of an embolism.
The two narratives—the one made of episodes and phases of MacIver’s life, and his loves and losses, and the one arising as a refraction of it, out of the mired trenches of one of the most obviously senseless sequences of self-destruction in human history—play across each other in the telling as they did in his life. MacIver recalls the characters and the consequences of the conflict that he had encountered years after World War I, in talking to all-but-forgotten men who had been victims of gas attacks, and his son’s words about Vietnam as he sat, back at home, supposedly recovering from his operation. His son had described that war as
a complete make-believe world…. No good railing against this distortion of news, that cover-up. Whole thing so misconceived, so many spokesmen warping the turn of events, that even the planners probably ended up duping themselves, and therefore to some extent sincere. All the more dangerous because they believed their own shit.
His son’s words and their moral landscape, described just before the boy reentered the hospital, to die, merge with the glimpses of dislocation and mendacity and unending waste that had been revealed to MacIver by the soldiers from the earlier war. The futility, the pointless falsehood of them both, pervades his war fiction with its marred remnants of decency, as his own physical condition deteriorates.
Neither MacIver nor Mr. Pouncey tries to make neat analogous parallels between the fiction and MacIver’s recollections during his final “waiting,” but the author does not separate the two typographically, shifting from one to the other as MacIver’s mind may be presumed to have done. And the fiction is as close and vivid as the personal memories, a credible recreation of the locked mutual murder that ushered in the twentieth century, a world outside the world, a nightmare of the afterlife, its outlines bolder and barer than those of “real” life.
Grief itself, and its rage at heart, is the theme that MacIver’s own recollections and the novel circle around. It is the mystery at the center of the action:
The death of David had been the worst thing that had ever happened to either of them, and well over half of the year that followed it (MacIver was ashamed to remember just how bad for how long) was certainly the worst extended period either of them had lived through.
The loss had nearly destroyed their marriage. What he recognized as his corrosive anger had intruded upon his teaching at Columbia. One day when his students displayed a null response to a question of his about King Lear he lashed out at them to “allow yourselves to feel something, you smug little spastics.” And later, trying to explain his outburst, he said,
There seems such a disproportion between what actually happens in the world, and keeps on happening, and the way we talk about it, and have always talked about it, here—in this sort of setting. We just, contentedly for the most part, lay words on things, and let them lie.
(The pun in the last word seems to be something that he and the author share, and MacIver’s clarity about the verbs “lay” and “lie” may be a subtle identification mark of an endangered species.) He alienated his colleagues with steady churlishness until they left him alone. Margaret had taken a studio downtown in New York, and spent her days there. He had spent more and more time alone with his depression and despair—with what he called his “depth fatigue.”
He and Margaret at last talked candidly about what the grief had revealed of the differences between their temperaments, and the damage that had been caused. Margaret insisted on remaining drawn to finding pleasure in life in spite of loss, and says to him that “it’s as though you’ve got some grim, bile-laden gene, preaching to you in a rasping voice that to find pleasure is to betray memory.”
They had found their way back to each other, for all that, and both had managed to turn to new work eventually. What restored MacIver, more fully than anything else, was a clarifying perception of his wife’s own grief and loss, and how she had dealt with them. MacIver has that to look back on as he knits his murderous narrative to its conclusion.
His fiction had begun with one Braddis, a sergeant he knew in the trenches, a lethal bully and an indisputable villain (who at one point is compared to Achilles). He had a regular ritual, watched up and down the trench, of filing his bayonet like a razor, and then the long thumb- and fingernails on each hand. After patrols had come back from no-man’s-land, Braddis liked to go out alone into Braddis land, as he called it, without his rifle, armed only with his bayonet and his nails, and what he did there was implied rather than recounted. In any case it was done perhaps for looting but certainly for pleasure.
Simon Dodds, the platoon commander, was apparently a soft, vague, placid character. But he is described in a passage of precise, deeply evocative prose, a testimony to a relation with a landscape, in a book written with consistent authority. The sentences tell of the young Dodds sailing his dinghy on the Norfolk Broads:
To see Simon Dodds at the tiller of…the Windrush, beating up the Broads and catching the last breath of air to offset the turn of the tide, was to see a different animal altogether, a knowing, engaged citizen of the curling byways of the Flatlands. Here the gates of his senses were open and alert to every changing impression. His nose scented the precise degrees of mud and salt in the inchmeal gains of land and sea against each other. He saw the slices of shadow off the banks darkening the water and cutting off its corners, and heard the first breath of the evening breeze rattle the reeds, and the last call of the bittern going to bed. This world was his…with its huge sky and grudging threads of water, and the strange, abrupt landmarks thrown up apparently always out of place behind the sedge: the sawn-off church tower, the windmill sails bodiless, each one suggesting by its dislocation that you can’t get there from here. In such a world you learn patience and humility….
This is the man who had been given a beautiful old watch by his grandfather, as a reward for his sailing skills and his knowledge of the place.
The watch had caught the admiration of Private Tim Callum, a fisherman’s son, a quiet, self-possessed man who had been a self-taught artist, and who tended to sit apart in the trench with his sketchbook. Dodds had told him the story of his grandfather giving him the watch. It is Callum’s independent distance with his sketchbook that sets off the first scene in the story, as the sergeant rises from his ritual sharpening and tears off the top sheet of the pad and slices it into shreds, an act which Callum responds to without raising his voice, saying that he had not been drawing the sergeant.
The tale, in its context of wholesale carnage, becomes a story of single homicide. Lieutenant Dodds finds out about Braddis’s looting in no-man’s-land from the bodies of English dead as well as of Germans, and confronts him with it. The sergeant manages to maneuver Dodds into a moment alone in no-man’s-land and to murder him there, from behind, and steal his watch, and Callum, realizing what has happened, and realizing, too, that the higher authorities will never exact justice, caught as they are in another no-man’s-land between individual action and social generalization, maneuvers the sergeant, in turn, into a meeting one on one out among the barbed wire and craters and kills him there in “Braddis land.” But in the encounter he receives his own death wound. It becomes a story from a saga, a closed link in an endless chain of lying, violence, and waste, familiar at every turn of human history. Is that MacIver’s whole story? He does not wrap it up tidily as a last word but leaves it in the daily renewed devastation of no-man’s-land.
MacIver’s rules had been neglected in the later working out of the tale, and he had grown weaker, losing track of the days, passing out in the shower. His fictitious characters, after the end of his account, went on running in his mind as though they were people he had known, with the dread and anguish and horror, and the survival, they remembered. It is another plane of memory, a further perspective on what he imagined as having happened, on their griefs and losses and his own as he sat assessing them. Thinking back over his own story and the one he had invented he recalled the rage of his own grief, the ruin it had nearly caused, and the wrath that is the real subject of the Iliad, the poem that is often described as the story of the (fictitious) Trojan War but is really about the unbridled rage of one man arising from his grief:
The warriors sitting in the halls listening to the stories Homer told would understand it—the unconsidered savagery that made soldiers and hunters kill on reflex, implacable, with no hesitant thought of the circumstances, bloodlust without concern for propriety or question of right timing. And the license seems given to the rage to stay rampant, even when the killing has stopped. The gods themselves understand that Achilles is entitled to drag the body of Hector around his city’s walls in front of his grieving family…. But how absurd to imagine that the public causes of war stoke the rage to their highest point, rather than the private grievances. Achilles himself makes it clear he has no part in and no particular feeling about Agamemnon’s and Menelaus’s little embarrassment; he has nothing against the Trojans. Let his honor be affronted, and let him lose his soulmate Patroclus, and you will find out what anger really is.
Some of the originality of Rules for Old Men Waiting is in its braiding together personal grief and the publicly organized violence of war along with its perennial accompaniment of rhetoric and lies. MacIver makes it clear that he has given the characters in his story traits that he knew in himself, even those of the ruthless villain Braddis. As he thought back over his own anger he saw that it was his wife who had brought him back from the mayhem he had been conjuring up in his personal and professional life.
The story he had made up of the war in the trenches ended with his hero Callum, the avenging artist, lying mortally wounded out in no-man’s-land, and MacIver wonders whether Callum himself had at last seen, just before his own death, beyond the rage that had driven him. He imagined Callum at the end saying to him,
You want a happy ending, MacIver, you want it all to add up to one big thing, the good and the bad, the plus and the minus, the nature and the violence to nature. …The hardest thing anyone can do is to tell other people…exactly what he sees.
(Callum, in MacIver’s eyes, is as near to being an authority on that subject as anyone he had known.)
Rules for Old Men Waiting sets out to do something as direct and as elusive as that. It confronts its primal subject with a lucidity and plainness that seem to be descended from the historians and poets we have labeled classical. These qualities, whatever we call them, are there from the first page and the description of the house (with its passing allusion to the Republic and to Thoreau) and it is what guides the narrator through the rapid unfolding of its huge theme, saving the work from pitfalls of cliché and emotional falseness. The result is a book of restrained and compressed imaginative authority on a theme that can be neither avoided nor resolved, a deepening current through the middle of our lives.
June 9, 2005