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The Vision Thing

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Author Reynolds Price finds redemption

By David Templeton

AT THE OUTSET of Reynolds Price's lyrical new novel, Roxanna Slade--his 30th published work in 35 years--the story's feisty, eponymous 94-year-old narrator playfully writes, "Every time somebody calls me a saint, I repeat my name and tell them no saint was ever named Roxy."

It can also be said that no saint was ever named Reynolds, yet the noted author's sterling literary reputation--coupled with public awareness of his long battle with a debilitating spinal cancer that led to his confinement to a wheelchair--has left the native North Carolinian with a certain unbidden aura of saintliness. In the eyes of numerous readers, the prolific author has more than met the requirements for canonization.

There's even been a miracle or two along the way, though he'll take none of the credit for that.

Price has written several plays and numerous volumes of short stories, poetry, and essays, but he's best known as a novelist. His first novel, A Long and Happy Life, won the William Faulkner Award for notable first fiction in 1962, and his 1986 novel Kate Vaiden captured the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Price, identifying himself as an "outlaw Christian," has intimately questioned his own spirituality in a number of books, including his 1994 "cancer memoir," A Whole New Life. In the breathtaking Roxanna Slade (Scribner's; $25), Price gives voice to one of his most fascinating characters yet, as Roxanna--suspicious of the Church, yet deeply religious--reflects on the highs and lows of a long and more-or-less happy life.

Like Roxanna, Price admits to feeling uncomfortable inside a church--yet firmly believes he's been touched by God. "Like most people who are getting along in their daily life, I hadn't spent a whole lot of time paying attention to the spiritual aspects of my life," Price smiles, positioning his wheelchair to face his guest within the sunlit San Francisco hotel room he's occupying during his local stop in a cross-country book-signing tour. "And certainly since I'd dropped any regular connection with a religious institution since the age of 16, there wasn't anything that resembled steady worshiping on my part."

That changed when Price discovered in the spring of 1984 that he had a highly malignant tumor in the middle of his spinal cord. Suddenly, spiritual matters became pretty urgent. "All the medical opinion was that, at best, I had about 18 months to live," he says. "Fourteen years later, here I sit."

Ultimately, it was the experimental use of a newly developed laser scalpel that successfully removed the tumor from Price's spine, after traditional surgery and radiation had failed. It was the intensity of the radiation treatments, in fact, that led to his paraplegia. That the pioneering technology came along when it did is, in Price's view, no coincidence. "I believe God healed me," he nods, his words coated with a honeyed drawl. "The laser surgery was the method he used."

Price's illness and recovery are eloquently recounted in A Whole New Life, a story that includes--and this foreshadows Roxanna Slade and her startling visions--a pair of miraculous mystical experiences of his own.

"The first was at a time in-between my having had surgery--where they were not able to remove the spinal tumor--and my beginning radiation," Price recalls. "I'd been lying in bed, and then this alternate reality took hold: I had this vision that Jesus was pouring water down this huge incision in my spine, and he said, 'Your sins are forgiven.' And I thought, 'That's not what I want to hear,' and I said, 'Am I also cured?' and he said, 'That too.'

"My only other vision was later when I really got bad, and it appeared I was dying fast," he continues. "I certainly was going paraplegic fast. I was lying there in the dark, and I just said, 'How much more of this is there going to be?'

"And this voice very clearly said, 'More.'"

Not long after, the laser surgery was proposed, and the tumor was gone at last.

Price, an educated, worldly-wise fellow by anyone's standards, believes that these visions were from God, not from some recess of his subconscious.

"Why on earth, if my subconscious was inventing this to comfort me, didn't it send me some more of these wonderful things? I remember as a teenage kid, sort of willing myself to have wet dreams," he laughs. "But I couldn't make myself have any more Jesus dreams."

Price has received mountains of mail from strangers recounting similar uncanny experiences with illness.

"There's a wonderful woman," he recalls. "I think she's 89. She lives in a Quaker home in Pennsylvania. She wrote me, not long ago, to say that she'd reread my cancer memoir. She said, 'I've had a similar experience.' She'd been undergoing some frightening medical tests. She was in the hospital, lying there one night ... and all of a sudden she saw all these people gathered around listening to a man. She understood that the man was Jesus. And he looked up over the others, just looked at her, and said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'Could you send someone to help me with the tests? They are very demanding.'

"And Jesus said, 'How would it be if I came?'" Price pauses, surprised at the sudden emotion that's arrived in his voice, briefly choking him up. "Isn't that beautiful?" he finally asks. "I think I have to believe that these things have come from God. That's what I want to believe."

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From the June 25-July 1, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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