A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Reading

I came across this book as I was recovering from a bout with cancer and looking for some literature of shared experience. Pickings are slim, needless to say, but this book stands out like a lightning bolt. In the closing pages of his vivid account of a midlife battle with spinal cancer, the gifted novelist, playwright and poet Reynolds Price sums up his reasons for telling this remarkable story. His desire to communicate “the dim other side of that high wall that effectively shuts disaster off from the unfazed world” has resulted in a text which will surely benefit all others similarly afflicted, whether physically or psychically, personally, or by acquaintance.

As Price recuperated from surgery and radiation treatments in the early 1980s, he looked desperately for “anything more useful than crackpot guides to healing or death, impossibly complex starvation diets, alfalfa pills and karmic tune-ups.”

His story, a journey from a state of apparently good health and admirable productivity (as a writer and teacher), through rapid physical deterioration, psychological desolation and escalating pain is scathingly and humorously blunt, honest and gut-gripping. Whether you are acquainted or not with life-threatening illness and disability (and I suspect this book has the most appeal to those facing the traumas Price describes), this writer’s insight, couched in the rhythmic cadences and sharp, dead-on observations that only a poet can summon, will fascinate anyone interested in a well-told story and the human condition.

The following description alone of how Price learned to manage unremitting central nervous system pain — through biofeedback and hypnosis — will be worth the reading to some:

“Like the sun, my native pain burns there beyond me with an ignorant, loyal heat, but I know I must never import it again to where I actually live and work.”

That Reynolds Price wound up on the other side of the wall, continuing to write plays, novels and poems at a rate unprecedented in his “old life” is encouraging enough. But the distilled wisdom and fine-tuned advice he “risks” offering other fellow travelers is as to-the-point as anything I’ve read.

Five poems, written since the onset of his illness, comprise the epilogue to this most gracefully written book, gems in a parallel language that express all the pain, terror and sheer transcendent joy this man’s experience produced. This book is the one I’ve been looking for.

Reviewed by Nancy E. Jay

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