In rugby, if the game is unresolved at the end of regulation play, it concludes in sudden death overtime. In Peter Pouncey's multilayered debut novel, Rules For Old Men Waiting, it's clear from the opening that regulation play for retired professor and former rugby player Robert MacIver ended when his beloved wife, Margaret, died.
Having found himself alone in life's overtime, MacIver initially concedes defeat. Then the Scots warrior gene that served him so well during his college rugby career kicks in, and MacIver sets himself a new path. It consists of 10 rules—Commandments, he calls them—to keep himself alive and to make the best use of his remaining time. Barricaded by winter in a Cape Cod home decaying in concert with his aging body, MacIver wills himself to stay active. "Work to consist of telling a story to the end, not just shards, but the whole pot." In pursuit of that goal he begins a fictional account of a World War I platoon, and he finds himself fighting a battle on two fronts: in Europe against the Germans and in Cape Cod against his failing health.
Pouncey's academic past brings a certain veracity to the text (he was dean at Columbia College and is president emeritus of Amherst). He skillfully shifts the narrative, alternating scenes from MacIver's life and from his novel, giving us a compelling portrait of a complex man. As with many of his countrymen, the dour Scot is not nearly as crusty as his outward face suggests, and MacIver's aching for his deceased wife is rendered with poetic grace: "She was the Muse who tamed the wild boar on Parnassus, the unicorn in the gardens of Aquitaine."
The bittersweet juxtaposition of love and loss, of a life fiercely lived that is now slinking away, makes for a deeply moving, elegantly told story.
Thane Tierney is a record executive in Los Angeles.