A brief, lyrical novel with a powerful emotional charge, Rules for Old Men Waiting is about three wars of the twentieth century and an ever-deepening marriage. In a house on the Cape "older than the Republic," Robert MacIver, a historian who long ago played rugby for Scotland, creates a list of rules by which to live out his last days. The most important rule, to "tell a story to its end," spurs the old Scot on to invent a strange and gripping tale of men in the trenches of the First World War.
Drawn from a depth of knowledge and imagination, MacIver conjures the implacable, clear-sighted artist Private Callum; the private's nemesis Sergeant Braddis, with his pincerlike nails; Lieutenant Simon Dodds, who takes on Braddis; and Private Charlie Alston, who is ensnared in this story of inhumanity and betrayal but brings it to a close.
This invented tale of the Great War prompts MacIver's own memories of his role in World War II and of Vietnam, where his son, David served. Both the stories and the memories alike are lit by the vivid presence of Margaret, his wife. As Hearts and Minds director Peter Davis writes, "Pouncey has wrought an almost inconceivable amount of beauty from pain, loss, and war, and I think he has been able to do this because every page is imbued with the love story at the heart of his astonishing novel."
Starred Review. Begun in 1981, this slender, unpretentious, lyrical and deeply moving novel by the president emeritus of Amherst College was more than two decades in the making. The year is 1987, and octogenarian Robert MacIver is alone, in failing health and debilitated with grief over his wife's recent death, hiding out in the dead of winter in a remote, unheated Cape Cod house "older than the Republic." Shocked into confronting the seriousness of his plight when the timbers of the front porch collapse under his weight, he retreats back inside the house and realizes that he wants to live out his remaining days--however few in number--with dignity. Thus resolved, he formulates his Ten Commandments for Old Men Waiting, the seventh of which is "Work every morning." And so he decides to write a short story about an infantry company in "No Man's Land" in WWI, which will draw on the interviews he conducted with victims of poison gas that he used for his first book, the well-received oral history Voices Through the Smoke. Pouncey's novel thus becomes a story within a novel; and MacIver's story is elegantly juxtaposed with his memories from his own long life. Pouncey's first book is proof that sometimes greatness comes slowly and in small packages. Agent, Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency. (Apr.) -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 29, 2006
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Excerpt from Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey
Rules to Stop the Rot
The house and the old man were well matched, both large framed and failing fast. The house had a better excuse, MacIver thought; he was eighty, but the house was older than the Republic, had been a century old when Thoreau walked the Cape, though he couldn't have seen it tucked away in the nondescript maze of scrub oak. It had been the willful seclusion of the place that had appealed to them when they first saw it--that and the equally hidden pool, about two minutes away through their woods, which must have decided the builder to choose the site. The oaks grew more substantial as they approached the pond, but the casual visitor would not have registered their rising height as the ground fell away down to the water. But when the path did its last little jink through the thicket of spare mossy trunks and last year's leaves, you stood on the edge of something suddenly spacious. A stretch of almost two hundred yards of water, more than fifty wide, a glade of water, fringed at both ends by sedge and reeds, shaded along the sides by the larger oaks. Bird-loud by day, redwings and warblers in and out of the reeds and busy water-traffic of ducks, and even, for a few seasons, the stately progressions of a pair of swans; owls with their fluttery hoots at night, and very often at the far end beyond a fallen log, the hunched figure of a black-crowned night heron, the grim presiding judge executing sentence on a surprising number of small fish and frogs.
Margaret and he had watched the pond over the years at every hour in every season. In summer, it was their swimming pool, where they swam naked at any time of day. Often on hot August nights, they would have a last dip before bed. They would take one towel between them, and no flashlight, because the night sky overhead was bright enough to light their way down the faint, twisting path. MacIver, an energetic but clumsy swimmer, would thrash the water into turbulence out into the deep and then make for shore, and try to use the towel as little as possible, to leave it dry for Margaret. She would go on a while longer, parting the water gently in her rhythmic breast-stroke, the moonlight playing on her wet hair with each forward surge, a sleek and quiet otter. He would lose her in the shadowed background at the far end, and peer with great concentration into the dark, to catch the first ripple of her return. When she finally waded towards the bank where he was standing, he would stay motionless trying to register the first moment when he could see into her silhouette, and detect the dark roundness of her nipples and the triangle of her pubic hair. Then she would let him dry her off, and they would go home to bed.
In other seasons, dressed for the weather, they would take their station under one of the oaks, his back to the trunk, with Margaret sitting between his legs, and simply let the life of the pool evolve around them. They had seen families of deer come down to drink, they had seen a raccoon balance on a log and try to fish with his paw, and one evening in the last of the light, they had seen a great horned owl sail out from the tree above them and swoop on a small rabbit on the other side of the pond. They had heard the short squeal, and seen the inert furry bundle dangling from the bird's talons as he passed over them on his return. Many foxes, and once he would have sworn a bobcat, though it can't have been, padding along the far bank and back into the trees. You never knew what you would see. MacIver named the pond the Blind Pool, from a favorite boyhood story, though it was called Frog Pond on his geodetic map, and Margaret had called the house Night Heron House in honor of the constant sentinel standing by his fallen branch; she did a fine woodcut of him, too, which still hung inside the front door.