First-time novelist Peter Pouncey's "Rules for Old Men Waiting" (Random House, 210 pp., $21.95) are the rules his elderly main character...
First-time novelist Peter Pouncey’s “Rules for Old Men Waiting” (Random House, 210 pp., $21.95) are the rules his elderly main character makes up for himself after his wife has died. Holed up in their increasingly disheveled Cape Cod house, Robert MacIver determines to:
1. Take a shower, shave and make the bed every morning.
2. Keep warm by burning household things in the stove (there isn’t much left to the woodpile and, anyway, he is too feeble to bring in any more wood).
3. Eat well.
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4. Read and listen to music.
And the last rule, the most important: “Tell a story to its end.”
Peter Pouncey will read from “Rules for Old Men Waiting” at 6 p.m. Monday, University Book Store’s Mill Creek branch in Mill Creek Town Center, Bothell-Everett Highway and 153rd Street Southeast, Mill Creek; free (425-385-3530 or www.bookstore.washington.edu).
The story he will tell is based on visions he has as he lies in bed. Part of the time he sees blurred scenes of his wife, Margaret, angry or detached. These hurt.
Then his mind switches to scenes of young men in khaki, running toward machine guns and mortars. A World War I scholar, he recognizes these as British troops rushing out of the trenches. He will tell a story about them.
He starts with characters: the brutal Sgt. Braddis, who sharpens his nails with his bayonet; the genial Lt. Dodds, who has an unexpected tough side; Pvt. Tim Callum, an artist (sensitive, naturally); and down-to-earth Pvt. Charles Alston.
All are from central casting, but their originality is not important. They must be alive to MacIver, and they must have an interesting story he can tell.
Along the way, of course, he tells the reader stories of his childhood in Scotland, his career as a history professor and his sometimes painful marriage to the saintly Margaret.
Pouncey is at his best as MacIver crafts his tale of the trenches and fights off what we guess is cancer, destroying his digestive system. The old fellow is endearingly clumsy when it comes to housekeeping, as many men of his generation are when they are widowed, proud of every meal he manages to prepare.
Pouncey is at his weakest when he dwells at length on the MacIver marriage. A rule for novelists: When the hero makes the big realization the author has been pushing him toward, the reader will be more engaged if the hero doesn’t wander around, physically and mentally, mulling it over for pages and pages.
Even a dying old man should be able to focus better than that.
But Pouncey’s images are lovely. He describes the house as having “mellow resonance, as if you were living inside a spacious cello.”
He tells of a visitor to the MacIver pond, “the hunched figure of a black-crowned heron, the grim presiding judge executing sentence on a surprising number of small fish and frogs.”
And this: “Tiny images swam in and out of his ken, like the magnolia buds in their cocoons of ice tap-tapping on the window beside his bed as he lay there. In full dress in the spring, the motion would be a sustained swaying of their waxy torches brushing the glass soundlessly. But now everything was edgy, as if it were nervously short-measured.”
W. Somerset Maugham is quoted as saying there are three rules for writing a novel, but no one knows what they are. I can suggest (1) not letting your character wander around realizing something for pages and pages, (2) having a story to tell and (3) telling it in language that will linger in the reader’s ear.
Pouncey goes two for three here, and that’s good enough for me.