Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey








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Rules for Old Men Waiting is a debut novel by the president emeritus of Amherst College, Peter Pouncey. Readers will find an ideal combination here: lyrical prose, well-crafted characters, and some gentle wisdom. For a debut novel, that’s a lot to achieve. Pouncey structures stories within stories on these pages, which involve episodes and recollections by the protagonist, Robert MacIver, as the end of his life approaches. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 6, “Trophies,” pp. 76-80:


Like an enemy that has bombed its weaker opponent close to final submission, MacIver’s illness could now dispense with any distinction between daytime and nighttime activities: there would be insignificant resistance at whatever hour it struck. He had felt awful when he woke up, the fever not ebbing one jot at dawn; he had become light-headed in the shower stall, and after apparently bouncing off the walls on his way down, he had found himself on all fours on the floor, with the water obliviously pounding him from above. It seemed unsafe to try and stand up in this confined space, but he had managed to butt the door of the shower open with his head, and then crawl out onto the bath mat. He had pulled towels off the racks to dry himself and keep warm, and, feeling a little better, he had crawled to the toilet and managed to climb up and sit on it. Finally, his head seeming steadier now, he had stood up, returned to the shower stall, turned off the water, and closed the door. He judged his performance during this episode undignified, and probably comical to any ob­server, but in the circumstances resourceful. He felt he had, over about the same time period, recapitulated the essential progres­sion of evolution: the aquatic animal coming onto dry land, then achieving four-legged locomotion, and finally standing as Homo erectus on two legs. Impressive. For breakfast he had bread and Tawny marmalade, pausing with each mouthful, allowing himself to relish the taste of the Tawny, and then sipping the warm water and preparing to pay the cost of the swallow. By the end, he felt he had defeated heavy odds and was ready for work. Today he in­tended to bring Simon Dodds and Tim Callum together.



Lieutenant Dodds had asked Private Callum to come and see him in what passed for his office in the company headquar­ters. It was his habit to spend more time in the trench with his platoon than most officers found necessary, and on one occasion he had noticed Callum sketching, after he had been relieved from his watch on the fire-step. Dodds had asked politely if he could see the book, and Callum had passed it over, he thought, resignedly, as though this would mean more trouble. The draw­ings struck Dodds as very powerful—some of men sleeping, men cleaning their kit, men horsing around on their weekly visit to the bathhouse, and one ferocious cartoon of Sergeant Braddis apparently playing with his bayonet. The quality of the work seemed so obvious to him—but what did he know?—that he wanted to encourage Callum. He had heard that the Artists’ Ri­fles, a pretty wild bunch by all accounts, whose sector of the trench system was less than four hundred yards from theirs, held what they called soirees at a local estaminet behind the lines, at which there was a lot of bad wine, some poetry reading, some holding forth, but also some sharing of thoughts on work they were doing or planning. An arty officer of the group had told Dodds of these occasions, giving time and place, when he had mentioned Callum, and conveyed that he would be entirely wel­come (“God in heaven,” he had actually said, “half of them are so far gone, they couldn’t recognize their own platoon mates”). “You should go,” Dodds said, “and take that book with you. I hear they occasionally have famous artists, or at least Official War Artists, soaking up the atmosphere, and spreading their wide culture for the rest of us poor fellows, for our morale.”

“I don’t know if that’s my sort of thing, sir,” said Callum. “I do best as a sort of loner.”

“That’s probably so,” said Dodds easily. He had one leg up on his desk, and was idly letting an antique gold watch swing from its chain around his finger. “But a change of scene does us all good from time to time, even if it makes us say, ‘This is defi­nitely not my scene.’”

“That may be true.” He was noticing the swaying watch dart its Tinker Bell dance off the walls. “That looks a lovely old watch, sir.”

“Yes. It’s more than a hundred years old—made by Robert Pennington of London about 1810, I think.” And he decided to tell him the story. “It’s the only trophy I ever won, and it’s the one I wanted most. It’s a Norfolk story, so a Norfolk lad will get the point of it. We lived on the Broads, and as long as I can re­member, I loved sailing. My grandfather, Augustus Dodds, who lived up the river from us (smack on the river: when it was run­ning dangerously high, he could dangle his feet in the water from his porch)—he gave me this nice little dinghy, which I sailed everywhere, morning, noon, and night. So when I was about fifteen, he asked me to come to tea, as he sometimes did, and to arrive at 4:15 prompt. If I made it on time, he would give me this watch. Now he knew that the tide turned at 3:40 on that day, and when the tide turns down with the current on the Bure, it’s carrying a weight of water, and no little dinghy is going to make its way up against it. So my trip on that afternoon, which with the tide I could do in half an hour, would take forever. So my grandfather was testing me to see if I knew my tides. Oh, yes—and this is important—he also made the condition that I could not leave my house before 3:30, and said he would check with my mother to make sure I hadn’t cheated. I knew my tides, and there was no chance, coming straight upstream on the Bure at 3:30 that afternoon, I could make it by 4:15. But I also knew that after the tide turns, the Bure, by a quirk of current, flushes some of its water all the way up a cutting near our house, to re­join the main stream on one of its crazy bends three quarters of a mile above my grandfather’s house. A truly circular flow. I also knew that cutting had been dredged recently, so I wouldn’t get stuck. It would take me a quarter of an hour to work my way up the cut, but that left me plenty of time to come racing down the Bure in time for tea, tying the painter at 4:11. My grandfather was sitting on the porch lazily swinging the watch—as I notice I have been doing.”

“Does that mean I get the watch now, for coming on time?” said Callum.

“Afraid not, my lad,” said Dodds, laughing and surprised.

“Do you think your grandfather knew about the cutting?”

“I wondered about that at the time, or whether I pulled a fast one on him. But now I’m sure he knew, and wanted me to have the satisfaction of outsmarting him. After all, he was sitting there before I got there, and I got there by the only way there was. I think he just wanted to give me the watch.”

“A generous man.”

“Yes. I think about him often, checking the time for this or that, on this lovely old watch. The landscapes, here and there, were meant to be similar, flat, well-watered, under big skies, but look what we’ve done with this. And the watch was meant to be there to time the drift of sky and water, and here it is still tick­ing away in a filthy time and place. But thanks for listening to my story.”

“I liked it,” said Callum. “You were a kind of Odysseus, weren’t you, making all your voyages and knowing all the ins and outs on the Broads? The Odyssey was the only book I ever got to love in school. But that watch, sir, that’s a great prize, and you won it fair and true.”

“How do you get on with Sergeant Braddis?” Dodds asked casually, as he was taking him to the door.

“He’s a weird cuss, but I don’t let him get to me.”

“Right attitude. Well, good-bye, and think about giving the Artists a chance.”

“I will, sir,” said Callum.

Dodds was impressed with Callum—watchful, wary, but en­tirely his own man, he thought. He wondered if he would make it to the Artists’ party. Perhaps he was too independent to need other people’s good opinion of his work; if you’d come this far alone, why bother to attend to what was going on in other sketchbooks. Still, wouldn’t you, even if entirely secure in your own sense of direction, be at least curious where others were heading, even as you struck out on your own? But never mind Callum. Dodds was more concerned with Braddis. He had heard of the destruction of Callum’s sketch, and had been told that the sergeant had also confiscated another one, supposedly a nude. This was unacceptable behavior, making life miserable for a particular member of the platoon—so blatant that everyone had noticed it. Dodds had also heard of Braddis’s solo expedi­tions into no-man’s-land in the small hours. He thought there could only be one reason behind those, but to check his hunch, he would have to go to town himself.


Pouncey has waited a long time to complete this novel, which he started writing in 1981. Readers will be pleased that Pouncey finished the work, and many will anticipate his next book. In the meantime, Rules for Old Men Waiting can be savored.


Steve Hopkins, February 23, 2006



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