Rules for Old Men Waiting, by Peter Pouncey. Random House, 210 pages, $21.95.
A week or so ago, John Saumarez Smith, who runs the great bookshop Heywood Hill in London, called to tell me that I must read Peter Pouncey’s Rules for Old Men Waiting. It was less a recommendation than a mandate, so I did as I was told. John and I have been friends, and reciprocal reading mentors, for a long time, and I trust him-especially when his voice sparkles with the same enthusiasm I first heard a quarter-century ago when he called to tell me about J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (1980), another great short (first) novel about a damaged man seeking a final wholeness.
When I finished reading Mr. Pouncey’s wonderful book, my first reaction was to call this newspaper and ask that I be allowed to bring it to our readers’ attention. It’s the kind of novel that must be fought for, that any of us who care about reading must fight for. Because, in the present age, which equates (some might say mistakes) noise for quality, a quiet, tough book like this, for all its mastery, might otherwise escape the notice of those tens of thousands of readers who live for the day they can fall upon a novel written by a grown-up, for grown-ups-a book that really can be described as “life-enhancing.”
Rules for Old Men Waiting tells of the grief of Robert McIver, a recently widowed historian, and how he deals with it. Realizing that he’s falling apart after his wife’s death, he sets himself rules-“a simple skeleton of the well-ordered life for a feeble old man”-to govern his day and keep him moving physically, intellectually, emotionally. Drawing on his background as a historian of World War I, he starts to write a novella about a group of British soldiers in the trenches and what befalls them. As we do when we grow older, he fights misery with memory, helped along by the odd wee dram of Lagavulin, that great, peaty Islay malt.
I’m not going to synopsize Mr. Pouncey’s story. Within its modest physical compass, this is an immense book, dealing with subjects of the utmost importance and human relevance: love and marriage and being a parent; loss and grief and regeneration, of course; war and death and rage; happiness and the making of art; and how men and women go from where they begin to where they end. But it’s also about being Scottish, about rugby and whiskey and firelight and icy branches against a window, and a black pond under summer stars, and what T.S. Eliot called “the evening under lamplight / (The evening with the photograph album)”-an image that has stuck with me every day of the 55 years since I first read “East Coker.” Indeed, there is much in the tone and pace of McIver’s ruminations that captures, in the most moving way, the rhythms and resonances of Four Quartets.
As it happens, the call about Rules for Old Men Waiting came just as I was finishing Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which I had finally, in my dilatory way, gotten around to. There are certain similarities between the two books. Both include a fiction-within-a-fiction; both deal with war, and loss, and coming to terms, and the terrible tangling-up of art and life. Mr. McEwan is a very good writer, and Atonement is a pretty good novel, the first half especially (the second half is a bit showoffy-too much writing for writing’s sake-and the ending is the biggest cheat since Presumed Innocent).
Rules for Old Men Waiting is, as I see it, the better novel, taken all in all. It never drags; it speaks with a plain, clear, wintry beauty; the reader cares. There’s a world of experience here, a wealth of learning, but never on parade; a world of feeling, but never sentimental-not in the postmodern, pejorative sense. At no point does the reader confront a scrap of unearned self-pity. We don’t sit apart from this narrative, as in a grandstand: We are in it, and of it, and it is in us, and of us. It ends when it should, when it must, and leaves the reader-this reader, at least-shaken yet satisfied. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Michael M. Thomas, a former Observer columnist, is the author of seven published novels, with an eighth, Love and Work, in the process of completion.