Peter Pouncey

"Rules for Old Men Waiting"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson JUN 12, 2005)

Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey

Rules for Old Men Waiting is an elegy for Robert MacIver. MacIver is an 80-year-old retired Colombia University history professor.

Throughout his teaching career, MacIver prided himself on a tough cynicism. He was easy-to-anger, a “crotchety old Scotsman” who did not, as they say, suffer fools gladly. He believed the hackneyed adage that a person should “look life in the face without flinching.”

Now, MacIver has an opportunity to look death in the face. He is dying in stoic solitude. A widower with no immediate family, he has retreated alone to a small family cottage on Cape Cod.

As a cold hard winter sets in, his frailty slowly becomes a last lingering illness. MacIver knows that he has only a few months to live. Trips to a grocery store for basic supplies become less frequent. Days melt into days. Meals are missed, trash neglected, showers skipped, and sleep irregular. Dreams of a past of hurt and sorrow haunt him.

An academician and historian, MacIver life’s work was to make order of events. To preserve a stubborn dignity, he decides to apply a studied approach to his own final days. Much as one might prepare an outline for an undergraduate lecture, he develops “Rules for Winter Watch/Rules for the Inside Game”, the “inside game” being his daily routine within the cottage. This plan, he believes, will allow him “to take back his life until he could give it away on an acceptable basis.”

MacIver’s rules are comic in their quotidian simplicity: keep clean, make the bed every morning, eat regularly, work every morning, nap in the afternoon if needed, in the evening, play the classical music that always provides comfort. Work for McIver means writing. He hopes to complete an historical novel, a project of many years.

As the narrative progresses, each passing day becomes more of a struggle. The reader is MacIver’s sole companion, drawn in by MacIver’s painful memories and his heroic efforts toward a final peace. As his end is inevitable, sympathy and caring are unavoidable. The book seeks to inspire, not depress.

The story begins to falter and unravel toward its conclusion. Unfortunately, the short novel loses momentum and with that its power.

Rules for Old Men Waiting is less a novel, more a collection three loosely related short stories, some more developed and worked than others. The day-to-day story of McIver’s demise frames the overall narrative. A second story is built around memories of Margaret, a wife he learned to love too late, and David, a long-dead son taken tragically by the mistake that was Vietnam.

Finally, there is the “novel within the novel.” One of MacIver’s self-imposed rules is to finish a fictional account of an incident set in World War. Rules for Old Men Waiting contains extended excerpts.

The author has said that these stories were written separately, over 23 years. This might explain the novel’s scattered discontinuity.

While Rules for Old Men Waiting may not be structurally sound, the simple, straightforward prose lacks pretense. The author’s genuine desire to connect emotionally with the reader is felt throughout.

Much will be made of the author’s age and background. Peter Pouncey—a name too perfect to be a pseudonym—was himself a college professor. He taught classics at Columbia through the 1970’s. (Autobiographical speculation is inevitable). From 1984 to1994, he was president of Amherst College. He is now retired at age 67. This is his first novel.

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Read a chapter excerpt from Rules for Old Men Waiting at

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About the Author:

Peter PounceyPeter Pouncey was born in Tsingtao, China, of English parents. At the end of World War II, after several dislocations and separations, the family reassembled in England, and Pouncey was educated there in boarding schools and at Oxford. A classicist, former dean of Columbia College, and president emeritus of Amherst College, Peter Pouncey lives in New York City and northern Connecticut with his wife. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014