Books: May-June 2001


A Perfect Friend
By Reynolds Price ’55. Atheneum, 2000.
  The central character of Reynolds Price’s first children’s book is a shy and misunderstood boy named Ben, the male literary equivalent of Annie Leibowitz’s famous photos of girls just this side of puberty—ungainly, vulnerable, incandescent.
  Eleven-year old Ben makes for a solemn hero: In the wake of his mother’s death a year ago, his ability to communicate with friends and adults has become constrained. His friends are afraid to ask him too much, wary of stirring his grief or incurring his coldness, and he keeps to himself, even around the two he likes best: his cousin Robin and his schoolmate Duncan. When Duncan tells him that a circus is coming to town, Ben becomes—and stays—so absorbed in fantasies about elephants and his private plans that he cuts Duncan off for weeks.

  Ben’s mother had taught him to draw elephants, and now he has become obsessed with their beauty and strength. Strength has a magical, life-saving quality: Early on he reminds himself that “Dad and I are both a whole lot stronger than we were right after Mother died,” though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. “Most days,” we are told, “he felt like a boy who would never be stronger or have his own safe family.” His father, embittered and maudlin, drinks himself into a stupor at night and reminds Ben both that his own future is bleak, and that Ben is responsible for salvaging his surviving parent: “When I was your age,” he tells Ben, “I was cruel as you are; and look at me now. I’m a lonesome man whose wife has died, and all the company I’ve got in my life is a coldhearted son who’ll leave my house in another few years, and I’ll sit here till I drop dead.”

  Enter the elephant, Sala (Sal for short), whom Ben manages to meet face to face and fall in love with at once. But he has to remind her at a critical moment, “I’m a young boy, Sal, a lot weaker than you.” He fantasizes about how strength can lead to violence: “Ben even realized that, with their famous strength, any one of [the elephants] could take a single step, break free completely, and kill every person in the whole crowded tent.” He wants to be an elephant, not so he can go on a killing rampage, but precisely because their enigmatic strength is so controlled. They seem to him always to be dancing alone.

  Other adults around Ben are either lost in their own neuroses and preoccupations or seem perfectly positioned to further his own. Everybody is sad, wounded in some secret place. Saddest of all is that Ben’s preoccupation with his own sadness makes it hard for him to see it in others and connect with them. Even when Duncan spills his guts about his family’s poverty, the beatings he receives from his own father, and his admiration for him, Ben feels jealous that his friend seems to know more than he does about “pain and shame and how to last through them and come out laughing.”

  Ben is what my grandmother used to call an old soul. A grim young philosopher, he’s headed for solipsism and abulia, not enlightenment. When he looks into Sal’s eyes, she seems “thoroughly lonesome and nearly hopeless but…also ready to laugh if anybody or anything would give it a chance.” And when she salutes him in the circus ring, picking him out from among hundreds of strangers for her special regard, he thinks, “Good things were stacking up too fast here; something awful might come next.”

  Ben comes by his despair honestly, of course; he learned during his mother’s illness the tough lesson that intercessory prayer is ineffectual at generating anything more than hope. But this novel is precisely about hope in the face of unbearable suffering, and one cannot but regard it through the lens of Price’s 1994 A Whole New Life, in which he chronicled his spiritual and physical struggle with cancer. As in that autobiographical account for grown-ups, there is something here like a movement of grace, though not identified as such.

  If this is a religious novel for young readers, it is one that does not attempt the fancy, fantasy, and allegorical filigree of C.S. Lewis. It is sturdy, craftsmanly work, not without its own subtle beauties. In the course of the narrative, Ben gradually permits Robin and Duncan to come closer to his inner life, inviting each on different nights to attend the circus with him. They, perhaps part of the same asymptotic grace that brings him to Sala, humanize him. His relationship with Robin finally takes a breathtaking turn in which we glimpse the promise of a less lonely future. After Duncan, at first a bit silly as seen through Ben’s eyes, reveals himself and Ben invites him to the circus, he discovers that his friend is far more perceptive and more sensitive than he imagined. It is Duncan who finally says the word that saves Ben’s life, and one senses that their relationship will have deepened by several notches in the story’s aftermath, though we do not stick around to see it.

  This gentle tale is also about coming of age and, inevitably, the transformative role of friendship. We never quite believe with Ben that he communicates telepathically with animals; too much of his conversation with the old family dog and the circus elephant seems an obvious projection of his deepest wishes and fears. Part of Price’s magic is that it doesn’t matter: Ben believes, and that’s good enough for us. What the animals say generally reassures him, but when he betrays Sala by refusing her request that he stay with her forever—just as he “betrayed” his mother by not preventing her death—he gets a different message, one that may reflect the inherent danger in his believing the anthropomorphic voices he hears but which, in any case, brings him close enough to real danger that he catches a whiff of death and, through that trauma, finally reconciles with the memory of his mother.

  The author unmistakably intrudes from time to time, but it is hard to regret Price’s dulcet insights. Part of the book’s strength is the pleasure one gleans from its occasionally striking images: seeing the clowns and acrobats in a state of deshabille, Ben thinks “they seemed like people whose bodies were nothing but toys that they were mistreating intentionally.” If the tone and diction occasionally deviate from what most eleven-year -old readers would tolerate, such diversions are never sustained long, and the audience’s attention is apt to be recaptured in short order by the book’s innocent humor and inexorable though undemanding pace.
If you have a sober preadolescent in your family, this book may be for him.
—Paul Baerman

Baerman M.B.A. ’90 is special assistant to the president at Duke.

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