Ardent Spirits

Leaving Home, Coming Back
Reynolds Price (North Carolina & Merton, '55)

An American Writer, Coming of Age in Oxford

By Dwight Garner

The New York Times

Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back

By Reynolds Price

Illustrated. 408 pages. Scribner. $35.

There’s a nice, small moment in Reynolds Price’s new memoir, “Ardent Spirits,” in which he describes a meal he shared in 1957 with the English writers Stephen Spender and Cyril Connolly and the American academic Lionel Trilling. Mr. Price was at Oxford University at the time, studying on a Rhodes Scholarship.

It was an awkward evening. Mr. Trilling “gave off a soberly academic whiff of disapproval of these laughing English writers,” Mr. Price writes. Mr. Spender and Mr. Connolly, for their part, were amused that Mr. Trilling had “written an entire humorless book about E. M. Forster” without perceiving an elemental fact: Forster was gay.

American readers can be forgiven if, as Mr. Trilling did with Forster, they have not noticed that Reynolds Price himself is — to borrow James McGreevey's phrase — a gay American. Over the course of his long career and across his jumbo-size output (38 books of fiction, poetry, plays, essays and other nonfiction), Mr. Price has deployed gay characters only sparingly.

He is far better known for being a native of North Carolina, where much of his fiction is set, and for his probing interest in religious faith. Mr. Price hasn’t exactly hidden the fact that he is gay; he is simply a private person who hasn’t tattooed this information, in curly script, on one of his biceps.

Mr. Price’s reluctance to write about gay life makes “Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back,” feel like a boisterous coming-out party. The book details six years in Mr. Price’s life, 1955-61, when he was in his early 20s, and it is, for sure, about many things beyond his sexuality — namely his years at Oxford and his beginnings as a writer. But the book seems most alive when it details what it was like to be young and gay and on the prowl — Mr. Price at one point describes himself as “a sexual wolverine” — in the buttoned-down 1950s.

“Ardent Spirits” begins in the fall of 1955, as Mr. Price and 30 or so other American men board a boat, the S.S. United States, bound for England. The world does not need another young-American-at-Oxford memoir, and Mr. Price’s assessment of the place carts out most of the familiar stock furniture: the bland food, the dismal heating, the British disregard for some of the niceties of personal hygiene.

Along the way, though, Mr. Price makes some interesting friends, becomes close to Mr. Spender and W. H. Auden and travels ecstatically across the continent. There are amusing walk-ons by people as diverse as Brigitte Bardot, J. R. R. Tolkien, Willie Morris, John Gielgud, Jean-Paul Sartre and the novelist Anne Tyler, who became one of Mr. Price’s first students when he returned from Oxford to teach at Duke University. As “Ardent Spirits” rolls along, it begins to emit a relaxed, jangly hum.

Mr. Price’s awareness of his sexual orientation surfaced well before he arrived at Oxford. “I’d had intimations from, say, age 7 that men were the world’s magnetic core for me,” he writes. “Though I felt pleasantly drawn to several other girls, right on through college, I date the irreversible proof of my course to the year in which I mail-ordered André Gide’s book ‘Corydon.’ ” He was in high school at the time.

At Oxford, despite what Mr. Price calls its “much-alleged homosexual crowd,” he was hardly part of a gay cartel. “I literally knew no other student who claimed to be queer (or appeared to be — it was some time before queer confessions became as common as weak jokes),” he writes. “And I couldn’t have told you, till late in my third year, whether or not there was a queer pub or other gathering place in the city.”

(Mr. Price applies the word “queer” and dislikes “gay” because he thinks the latter hurt homosexual men during the early years of the AIDS crisis. It fit the assumption of bigots, he writes, that “homosexuals were giddy irresponsibles, negligible creatures.” Mr. Price quotes a friend who says: “Please don’t call me gay. If you need an adjective, call me morose.”

Mr. Price was hardly on the sexual sidelines while at Oxford, however. While traveling in Italy with a friend, he began loitering in the Borghese Gardens in Rome at night, where the “wooded throughways and bushes also converted, almost instantly at sundown, into the central pick-up spot for whores of all gender.” He takes a lover who, Mr. Price imagines, carried “a whiff of genetic memory of the passage of Attila and his Huns through medieval Europe.” Now there, you think, was some face-melting sex.

Mr. Price observes that “sex between men is, in one pure sense, the ideal male sex act, productive of possible affection and a quick intense pleasure — an act that’s profoundly different from female sex, likely as that often is to result in the commencement of a child’s life.”

He explains why he hasn’t written often about gay life. “I’ve been more steadily interested in exploring lives involved in complex families with lengthy histories which are endlessly subject to change and fate, and such lives are generally heterosexual.”

He adds a commercial angle, one that seems to me less relevant as time goes on: “I’ve also observed that few readers are interested, over long stretches, in stories of homosexual life; and I’ve never scorned readers.”

Mr. Price also reprints his favorite bit of advice, adapted from something an Oxford don’s mother said on her death bed: “You’ll only regret your economies.”

“Ardent Spirits” is Mr. Price’s third memoir. His first, “Clear Pictures” (1989), traced his life to age 21. His second, “A Whole New Life” (1994), detailed his desperate battle with spinal cancer, which left him a paraplegic in the early 1980s. “Ardent Spirits” is the best of this winning lot. It’s occasionally slack and talky, the work of a porch-swing raconteur, but Mr. Price’s warmth, vigor and good humor consistently shine through.

This book takes its title from a comment made by a guide who was showing Mr. Price and a group of writers around Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's house. Describing Jefferson’s preference for wine over hard liquor, the guide said: “Mr. Jefferson kept very few ardent spirits, only for those few friends who required them.”

The phrase seemed appropriate for this memoir, Mr. Price writes, even though he has never been much of a drinker. It fit because the book is, he honestly declares, a “memoir of high adult happiness.”