Imagine being assigned a creative paper to write by an English professor in which you’re given an aging pair as characters to depict. Of the two, one has a debilitating illness, the other trying to cope with it. You’re to write the paper as taking place over a summer, with no particularly dramatic events (i.e., no trainwrecks, no police chases, no grisly murders, no mano a mano fights). Yet you’re to write a compelling, emotional story. Quite a challenge, no?
If you were to look for a “go-by” as an example, you’d do well to pick up and read Tommy Hays' latest, “The Pleasure Was Mine.” Hays writes softly, with an almost delicate tone about his two characters, husband Prate Marshbanks and wife Irene, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. They’re something of an odd couple, but a loving one, and Prate must find the best way to cope with this disease. The story also adds seasoning through their son Newell and grandson Jackson.
Jackson comes to live with Prate over the summer while Newell, an artist, attends a summer art colony. Here, Prate must contend with both the sadness of failing age, the alienation of a son, and the subsequent promise of youth. How this plays out is the meat of Hays’ fine story.
The Marshbanks drama occurs in the South Carolina upcountry and the mountains of western North Carolina, and Hays gives us enough of a feel for this terrain and its heritage to claim geography as yet another character. This, of course, is the way of Southern literature.
I’ve always been drawn to writing that evokes mood – say Steinbeck, for instance, and in the South, the poetry of James Dickey – and Hays shows able writerly chops in this respect. He edges from scene to scene by nimble steps, some evoking humor, but a humor leavened with sadness – no small feat, that.
His depiction of Prate Marshbanks, in first person, dwells consistently on the character of a man finding it difficult to contend with change, a man determined to live self-sufficiently. His evocation of wife Irene is a tender one that captures both the debilitation of her disease and the strength of the human soul. And through Newell and Jackson, Hays allows Prate to find a solace his self-sufficiency urge couldn't have found room for.
If I have to be forced to fault-find here, it’s in the depiction of the boy, Jackson, who is sometimes mute, sometimes all-too-adult in his interaction with parent and grandparents. But here I’m somewhat grasping at straws in trying to be objective.
This is a fine addition to Southern literature’s canon, a story to both inform one’s thoughts and warm the heart.