Read The Short History of a Prince Online
Authors: Jane Hamilton
THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE
“Few novelists portray real life and high art convincingly on the same page. The surprise here is that Hamilton, a gifted chronicler of the everyday, deftly combines the two …
The Short History of a Prince
is the most contemplative and languorous of her novels. It may also be her finest.”
New York Daily News
“There are no shocking dramas or earth-shattering revelations here. Perhaps that’s why this lovely, witty book rings so true.”
“Jane Hamilton continues to use her considerable talent in the service of compassion … totally absorbing.”
Dallas Morning News
“[Hamilton] can make real life riveting … There can be no better recommendation for a novelist.”
“Magically captures the anxious vulnerability of adolescence … Jane Hamilton has crafted a lyrical family drama, and writes in beautiful, languid, descriptive sentences. Her vividly drawn characters seem familiar and real, like so many Polaroid snapshots.”
“A wise and richly textured look at art and talent, family, friendship, and sexuality … Hamilton writes with a compassion that is not only missing from so many other books, it is missing from the world, and therein lies much of the novel’s beauty and importance.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Engrossing, beautifully written … a story of not only being at a place where one can love and be loved, but of getting to that place.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A novel that seeks to understand what it means to live a thoughtfully examined life. With hardly a false note or a word out of place, Hamilton has created one of the most believable and appealing characters in contemporary American fiction.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Hamilton creates stories that are almost impossible to set aside. She has created living, breathing characters whom she knows inside and out—so we do, too.”
“Hamilton brings to her third novel the same qualities of emotional integrity and compassionate understanding that distinguished
The Book of Ruth
A Map of the World
… rewards readers with a fully dimensional picture of evolving lives.”
“A meditative, slow-moving, and thoroughly absorbing family drama about loving, losing, and holding on to all we can. This is a lyrical, bighearted novel that won’t easily be forgotten.”
“Readers love Hamilton not only for the beauty of her prose and the profundity of her story lines but also for her psychological precision and authorial benevolence … [the] plot [is] involving and resonant, but it is Hamilton’s extraordinary insights into human nature that make this novel shine as she transforms ordinary occurrences—a conversation, a prank, a moment of intimacy—into nothing less than intimations of the divine.”
Table of Contents
For JMW—for Boonkie
The Short History of a Prince
is a work of fiction. All incidents and dialogue, and all names and characters, with the exception of a few well-known ballet dancers, are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual people is unintentional. Where the real-life figures appear, the situations, incidents and dialogues concerning those persons are entirely imaginary and are not intended to depict any actual events or to change the entirely fictional nature of the work.
hy Walter woke up earlier than usual on August 10, Saturday, he couldn’t at first explain. The collies next door were barking at the air, as always, no space for brains in the tiny knob between their pedigreed ears. It had rained in the night and the summer sun was already drawing steam from the moist ground. Walter would later say that he felt
, that it wasn’t the light cutting through the misty heat or the rumpus of the Gamble dogs that made him sit up. He had gone to the window and looked out. It was like the dawn of the world down below, so green and vapory and lush with fronds, and when the lilac tree shook in her yard he admitted that his foolish heart came up his throat. He was still half asleep, and for an instant—just that long—he expected to see a reptile reeling in breakfast on its sticky tongue or a dragonfly, all veiny wings, the size of a model airplane. Thank God! It was instead Mrs. Gamble snapping at the dying wood of the tree with her red-handled loppers.
Woman, what have I to do with you? Walter thought, words he’d heard somewhere, in a play or from a book. It was five-thirty in the morning, the day of his Aunt Jeannie’s and, also somewhat incidentally, his Uncle Ted’s anniversary party. He needed his sleep, in preparation for the event. That he was awake and watching Mrs. Gamble
must mean something. He was often assigning meaning to moments, saying, Here, and here, and here is a beginning, the opening sequence of my real life. He was fifteen and he was ready for drama even if he had to construct it himself. Ideally he’d take the part of the unlikely hero, or the witty and cunning rescuer, or the artist who is at first misunderstood. And in the conflict, he guessed, he might enjoy being hurt just enough to make an appealing victim, but not so much that he’d actually suffer. How convenient it would be, too, if change was heralded, if an epoch was launched with a clarion call or unusual weather patterns, if Mrs. Gamble could get her dogs to tweet, the birds to bark when there was going to be upheaval.
He remembered how Mrs. Gamble used to sit on her toilet in the downstairs bathroom in the old days when he was over playing with Trishie Gamble, how she smoked her cigarettes and read from her book of astrological charts. The book lay open on her lap, on her apron, her pants
folds around her ankles. Her short dingy hair, as usual, was coiled into pin curls and secured with bobby pins. She had apparently long since given up the habit of shutting the bathroom door in her own house, so what if Trishie and her son, Greg, the neighbors, the dogs, drifted by while she cast their horoscopes. Walter was Virgo, the virgin: “Exact,” she told him, “methodical. Industrious. Chaste.” She said the word with relish. “Ch-haste.” He didn’t know what it meant, precisely, and he couldn’t tell if it was something he could look forward to being. “ ‘The Virgoan heart,’ ” she recited, “ ‘is not quickly melted, but when once it finds itself in love’s furnace it glows with a pure white heat and takes ages to cool.’ ”
He conceded, to himself, that he was still afraid of her, a little, it was true, afraid to look her right in the eye. Down in the yard she was wrestling with the lilac branch, having trouble making her cut. It was one of the first signals, he would tell his friend Susan months later. Mrs. Gamble, the augur, with her loppers, trying to clip away the canker. When she squinted up at his bedroom that Saturday morning he ducked. He went down on all fours and crawled to his bed. She had felt his gaze—he shivered at the thought of it. He should shut his eyes and dream about a carefree Walter McCloud, a slouch, the life of the party, a boy with a new star, a new planet, a new astrological house. The Gamble collies had already barked at the neighbor, Mr.
Kloper, on his way to work, and so there was no real reason he couldn’t turn over and go back to sleep.
Two hours later when Walter went down to the kitchen he found his mother standing by the sink with her nose under his brother’s chin, inspecting his Adam’s apple. Joyce was wearing her purple-and-blue apron that went up over her shoulders and crossed in the back with an additional sash around the waist, tied in a bow. Walter had been to the ballet the night before with his aunt, and it struck him that his mother was wearing something like a costume. He wondered if a choreographer as sensitive and penetrating as Mr. George Balanchine could translate Joyce’s life into dance. What would the genius ballet master do, he wondered, to get at the essence of Joyce? He sat down to his cornflakes trying to imagine what trick Mr. B. used to bring the spirit of his dancers to the fore. In a feeble beginning, he knew, he pictured Joyce rising up and skimming across the floor on the tips of her toes doing bourrées, to pour him orange juice and set out the napkins.
“Does it hurt when I touch there?” Joyce was saying, pushing the pad of her thumb into what she thought was her older son’s lymph node.
“Sort of.” Daniel had thrown his head back, to the limit, and the strain made his voice sound higher than usual.
“She means, is it pressure, which is not necessarily a bad thing, or is it pain?” Walter said, turning the cereal box over to read the ingredients. He’d pulled a muscle in ballet class in July and his teacher had spoken to him in a similar vein, trying to pinpoint the hurt.
“That’s right,” Joyce said, “pressure or pain?”
“I don’t know, Mom. I just feel it. It’s big.”
Walter glanced up from the box. “You two may be under the impression that you are alone, in our own house, but in fact you’re providing Mrs. Gamble with an excellent view of the examination from her kitchen window. She probably has already figured out what’s on Dan’s neck. I bet she’s on her way over here now with a cure-all, with some organic liver.”
Daniel did not mutter a brotherly “Shut up,” or try to move away from the sink. His head was still hanging back and he gurgled when he spoke.
“I’m going to talk to the doctor, Daniel,” Joyce said.
“Aw, Mom, it’s all right. I don’t want to mess up the day.”
“Overnight you have a—protrusion—as big as a—”
Walter stood up, to see. He had not ever been athletically inclined but he understood his mother’s confusion. There was no ball in any American game that he knew of for purposes of comparisons. “How’d you get that?” he asked, gaping.
“I have a sore throat,” Daniel said, as if that explained the vaguely three-sided growth that was slightly smaller than a tennis ball. “I woke up with it.”
Over the phone the doctor prescribed aspirin and bed rest and further consultation in a day or two if the pustule hadn’t drained on its own. Joyce hung up the telephone and opened the refrigerator to look at the two hundred deviled eggs she’d made the day before. The McCloud family was supposed to drive up to Wisconsin, to Lake Margaret, for Aunt Jeannie’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Joyce did not want to leave her son at home with such an odd malady. “Are you well enough, Daniel, to ride in the car,” she said, “or are you sick enough for me, at least, to stay with you?”
Walter set his spoon down on the table and turned around to look at her. They had to go. Aunt Jeannie had asked for his help, and Joyce had made the lime Jell-O in the doughnut molds, the orange Jell-O in the fish molds, the deviled eggs, a ham and a kettle of baked beans. He realized that he’d been looking forward to the day. He didn’t want to miss the occasion, and he also didn’t like the idea of being at the lake, at the extravaganza, without his mother. It was she, it was her presence, that kept a family party from going off center.
There were no ballet classes in August, and Walter and his two dancing-school friends, Susan and Mitch, had been hired by Aunt Jeannie to serve the hors d’oeuvres and refill the champagne glasses. They had been instructed to wear black dress pants and white shirts and black bow ties. Aunt Jeannie had purchased silver plastic bowler hats for the servers and commanded her daughter Francie to sew silver-sequined vests. Walter had told his friends that Aunt Jeannie
was a nut case, there wasn’t any straighter arrow than her husband, and so there was bound to be some excitement. They’d load the car with grocery bag after grocery bag, sacks filled with buns, cantaloupes, cherries, peaches, whole watermelons, gallons of milk. On the way Walter planned to be in the fold-out seat in the back of the station wagon, squashed against Mitch, across from Susan, all of their legs tangled together, the wind blowing through the car so that none of the other McClouds, neither his parents, nor Daniel, if he made it, could hear the conversation.