The Short History of a Prince
- Wear, Delese
- Date of entry: Sep-30-1998
The Short History of a Prince is the story of Walter McCloud beginning in his teens and ending as he approaches forty, told alternately in Walter’s adolescent and adult voice. Weaned on Balanchine and Tchaikovsky by his eccentric, cultured aunt, the teenage Walter dances and dreams of playing the Prince in The Nutcracker. Supported by his loving family, including his older jock brother Daniel, Walter confronts the ambiguities of sexual identity as he becomes more aware of his conflicting feelings for his two best friends, Mitch and Susan (also dancers and far more talented).
Suddenly Walter’s pleasant, routinized family life is interrupted when his brother Daniel becomes ill, transforming his life, his parents’ life, and his friend Susan’s life when she becomes romantically involved with Daniel even with the knowledge of his terminal diagnosis. The following year is full of change surrounding Walter’s acknowledgment of his love for and subsequent involvement with his friend Mitch, and his ultimate response to Daniel’s dying. The adult Walter, a first-year English teacher near the McCloud summer home at Lake Margaret, Wisconsin (after a career at a doll house shop in New York City), is still trying to understand the meanings of family, love, desire, and friendship.
This is a novel of many overlapping stories. It is the story of the pleasures and torments of sexuality as Walter recognizes his love for Mitch and experiences both the passion and shame of romantic love for another man. Some of the most beautifully written passages of the book surround the body: its sheer physicality, its longings, and its capacity for transcendence.
Once while watching his friend Susan dance, "he felt, watching her, that he inhabited her body. . . . She moved as if there were no distinction between her own limbs and the music, as if her flesh and the sound coming from the phonograph had become, in the McCloud living room, part of the same wave." Another time, aware of his feelings for his friend Mitch while riding a train together, he wonders, "What happens to love if it wasn’t collected . . . if it wasn’t received?. . . He might stand and go from commuter to commuter down the aisle, asking each one what he thought about the old unsolved problem that science and mathematics had never tackled and literature and the opera only fleetingly illuminated: Where, he’d ask, does love go? He felt as if his skin were porous, that love was gaseous, leaking out of him, a cloud of stink everywhere he went." (67)
Then there is another story, this one of his brother Daniel’s illness. Here is a portrait of a family trying to live with the dailiness of serious illness--the uncooked meals and laundry that doesn’t get done, of trying to answer questions that have no answers, of trying to keep on living with some meaning and joy when a child/brother is dying. Again, Hamilton exquisitely and painfully portrays the anguish of a father asked by his dying son what will happen to him once he’s dead.
Recalling what he said, years later, to Daniel’s question--which also illustrates the longevity of grief--Walter’s father tells him how incompetent he felt: "I told him I was sending him off on a trip, a journey I couldn’t prepare him for . . . I said that he would leave his body behind, that he’d be the first of us to take the leap. There couldn’t help but be something of an adventure in it. That’s what I said, an adventure in it. I was drowning in sorrow and I was making out death to be an excursion to an amusement park. I have never even admitted the extent of my stupidity to your mother." (283)
Finally, there is the story of middle-age angst and longing. Approaching forty, Walter is still searching for what he wants to be when he grows up, still searching for some kind of committed relationship, and still trying to understand the painful and redemptive dimensions of family relationships.
The novel could effectively be taught at the intersection of these overlapping themes of sexual identity, middle age, family relationships, and illness in the family. Hamilton’s compassion for the characters she draws leaks out to readers, yet she does so without romanticizing those characters.