Rules for Old Men Waiting
By Peter Pouncey
Random House, 210 pp., $21.95
Both the task and blessing of aging is that one has the chance to cast a long light upon the past -- to taste regret, to savor good luck, to bear, finally, the heretofore unbearable loss. Peter Pouncey's elegiac novel is an ode to this sorting and shifting of memory, but it is also an exquisite realized homage to narrative itself: the fine thing molded from the lump of clay that is human consciousness. But I have already made ''Rules for Old Men Waiting" sound all high-minded and fancy-pants dull, and Robert MacIver, its 80-year-old roaring Scots narrator, would upbraid me royally for so doing. He deserves better than that -- he was a helluva rugby player for Scotland in his day, and then a Columbia University historian of the First World War, and now he has taken shelter in his Wellfleet home in winter, accompanied by Mahler and single-malt Scotch and waiting to die.
Pouncey is a 67-year-old retired classicist and former president of Amherst College; in the find-the-spin campaign of contemporary publishing, much is being made of the fact that this is his first novel, as though an old elephant had just given birth to twins. In fact it is the sensibility of an abundant inner life that defines ''Rules for Old Men Waiting," so rich and reasoned and full-blown that only time could have produced it. History and ancient wisdom are the cornerstones of this story; MacIver can sip from the classics -- ''Let me be to my sad self hereafter kind," he thinks, invoking Gerard Manley Hopkins -- as easily as he does from his glass. This easy marriage of sorrow and good sense is part of what makes the old Scot such a fine companion; so, too, does it define the beauty of the tough-minded novel that delivers him.
First lines of novels are not always telling, but this one is: ''The house and the old man were well matched, both large framed and failing fast." It is the staunch, funny, and dead-on voice of someone you can trust, that ''failing" the only polysyllabic word in the bunch. The year is 1987, and MacIver has just lost his beloved wife of nearly 40 years; they had taken her back to the house and pond they both love for her to die. Margaret was a painter, and her visionary patience taught MacIver how to look at the world as well as how to live in it: Where he was all bluster and impulse and rage-driven passions, she knew how to watch decay give way to growth. In the wake of his loss, fighting his own swift illness, MacIver stocks up on provisions and goes to ground for what he knows are his last days. The ''rules" of the novel's title refer to the list he devises to give himself structure and to keep the fire lighted -- burning, as he notes to himself, ''books of rival scholars and other trash, before good books and my own."
Finest of all, for our purposes, is Rule No. 7: Work every morning. MacIver is looking for a story to contain his fury -- ''Steal a march on the random images that invade you," he instructs himself -- and so it is that he begins to compose a war story, drawn from his knowledge of the trenches in France and his intimacy with combat of all kinds. ''He would assemble a small cast of characters, pop them into a trench in Flanders, and describe how they worked on each other." MacIver's father was an RFC aviator killed in action over France, and when it came time for his own war, he chose the navy instead, Lieutenant Commander MacIver on a destroyer off the coast of France in 1944. He made his mark in scholarship by interviewing the survivors of poison gas from his father's war. By the time he wraps himself around his chair each morning, dressed in double socks and his old rugby cap, he is more than equipped to go mano a mano with evil.
But if the fiction that evolves from MacIver's efforts is a mud-soaked staging ground for his own grapplings at last light, it is also a stunningly rendered war story in its own right, made more intimate by the creative process. We get to watch MacIver imagine his men: Lieutenant Dodd, the dreamy sailor who finds himself in France in charge of a company of men; Sergeant Braddis, who loves war far more than right or wrong and whose amorality is scarier than malevolence. Private Callum, the solitary artist who takes shelter in the trenches by sketching his comrades, will come to hold much in memory and loss for his creator. And finally, there is Private Charles Alston -- the ''good one," as MacIver conceives him -- a former gamekeeper on a Norfolk estate who understands the laws of animals, and whose great heart will outrank his class-bound military status.
As MacIver, fortified by powdered eggs or fighting pain, finds his way back each day to his war-torn plot of sorrow and redemption, the story of his own long life unfolds: his abrasive, lightning-rod ways before a classroom, the captivating painter who loved and then tamed him, the great sorrow that circled them both like a wild beast and then defined their lives. This interweaving of stories is mostly seamless and mostly an even match; only once, in what feels like a hastily conceived deus ex machina where public television invades MacIver's wintry quiet, does the story feel contrived.
Throughout both stories, whether the careful horrors of the trenches or the sweet arc of MacIver's being, hovers the extraordinary sensibility that created them, which is most certainly that of a mind trained in the classics. Not for Pouncey the smaller stuff of little bruises or ironic victories; his themes belong to Thucydides and Herodotus, and thus to suffering, moral conflict, the inevitable dance between death and hope. He understands the horrid contract between slayer and slain, and -- as Private Alston puts it -- ''the angers that give wars their status, and stoke us all up to behave awry." That's the anger of Achilles, said more simply, and it suggests the resonance and force of ''Rules for Old Men Waiting," and of the whip-smart old Scot at its heart.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at email@example.com.