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Imprints Literary Supplement

Memphis in the Meantime

Peter Taylor and the Pleasure of Elegant Fiction

Dan Krall

Imprints Literary Supplement 1999

Our Favorite Things Writing about books for a living means reviewing new releases, covering publishing-house hijinks, an...

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By Eileen Murphy | Posted 10/13/1999

For a literature lover, there's little better than discovering an accomplished author, someone with a ready-made backlist to wallow in and tons of background material (interviews, critical analysis) to study. It's even better when the discovery is an accomplished author who has fallen out of public consciousness. Then you have the privilege of converting all of your friends and becoming the resident authority.

That's how I felt earlier this year when I finished Peter Taylor's novel A Summons to Memphis, a novel by Peter Taylor. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1987, but somehow Taylor hasn't remained a part of our reading consciousness, possibly due to his death in 1994. That's a shame—he was a witty, thoughtful, deceptively accessible writer. He's elegant without being minimalist, formal without being stuffy. He's subtle and provocative all at once. No one deserves a revival more than Taylor. In fact, I would go as far as to say America needs to start reading him again.

What makes a Taylor revival so important is the distinct possibility that 1980s fiction will be forever defined as the playground of the second-person narrator. When most of us remember '80s fiction, we think of Tama Janowitz, Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and the rest of their MFA-wielding horde. Then and now, Peter Taylor represents the antidote to the self-absorbed regurgitations of the literary Brat Pack. His graceful writing and well-wrought stories provide an alternative to their navel-gazing accounts of the tragically hip.

That's not to say that Taylor ignores high society and its accompanying comedy of manners. Like those scenester scribes, Taylor was concerned with the pains of the moneyed class, with the need to keep up appearances, with the agony of a ruined reputation.

But there are myriad differences between Taylor's fictional world and the self-obsessed New York of other'80s writers. Taylor, who was born in 1917 and began publishing stories in the late '30s alongside his friend Eudora Welty, represented an earlier generation. He concentrated on the South, particularly the Tennessee of his youth, and was concerned with a lost time, with the dying reign of Southern gentility and the end of its power and influence. Taylor broke open the closed world of the moneyed South and exposed it for all of its hypocrisy and shallowness. But unlike the hypercynical writers of the Brat Pack, Taylor is generous with his characters; he seldom has fun at their expense. He empathizes with the snobs as well as the snubbed. No one is able to be true to him or herself in a culture where behaviors and attitudes and even emotions are carefully regulated by the reigning social strictures.

And Taylor's characters possess inner lives. Don't read that to men the sort of soul-searching narratives we're seeing all over today's bestseller lists. Taylor's people are complicated. His stories seldom end happily, but his narrators are allowed to benefit from the passage of time—childhood tales are told from the safety of adulthood. From the distance of years the narrator can give voice to concerns the child only sensed and often couldn't name.

Consider "The Captain's Son," the first offering in Taylor's collection In the Miro District. Although the narrator is a full-grown Southern gentleman, he recounts events from his adolescence. The details come to us through the filter of his young consciousness; his accounts of snacking on cereal with milk are delivered with the same weight as his memory of his sister's wedding to a wealthy, pedigreed Southerner. The adult narrator does not interfere with his adolescent recollections; much of what he reports comes to us in code, as his young self relies on his parents' careful language to describe his sister and brother-in-law's troubled marriage. In the end, Taylor's subject matter—alcoholism—is very modern, but he serves it up without the self-conscious lingo we've all learned to use. Instead, the reader shares the narrator's moment of realization, when, as a Vanderbilt University sophomore, he recognizes the smell of alcohol on his brother-in-law's breath. ("He smelled the way some of the older boys in my fraternity did the morning after a big drunk.") Only then do he and the reader comprehend the manner and depth of the problem now troubling the family.

Taylor's subtlety permits him to sneak intense philosophical arguments into seemingly amusing accounts of Southern life. A Summons to Memphis, his best book, seems a trifle at first. Phillip Carver, a New York book editor, entertains the reader with tales of a uniquely Southern practice—protecting the family holdings by preventing widowed fathers from remarrying. It's humorous, at first—some children go so far as to have their aged fathers declared mentally incompetent to ensure that the antique breakfront will stay in the family.

But as Phillip relates his own family's version of the tale, it becomes laden with philosophical questions that resist resolution. Phillip's father, a charmed and charming man who has always insisted on complete control of all affairs of the family, including his children's lives and loves, hopes to remarry after his wife's death. His daughters seek to prevent this, using the time-honored methods that are so amusing in the book's early pages. But the sisters' motivation isn't the family furniture or finances; it's revenge, and author Taylor leaves his characters and his readers in a philosophical predicament this reader has never resolved.

Given America's obsession with dysfunctional families and children confronting their imperfect parents, A Summons to Memphis relates an incredibly timely tale, but that doesn't mean its relevance is limited to our age. Taylor re-creates a world that exists solidly in its own era, but he wrestles with issues of timeless import. His subtlety, elegance, humor, and intelligence confound reader's expectations. In his hands, "serious" literature can be funny, engaging stories can be profound. In Summons he grapples with the basics of existential philosophy, but few readers would confuse his work with agitprop fiction of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Taylor's books are their own reward. We seldom see this level of artistry, so perhaps we've forgotten how to appreciate it. I resist the argument that his style has been replaced by hipper, more modern attitudes. Like anything carefully crafted by hand, Taylor's stories outclass their mass-produced counterparts.

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Imprints Literary Supplement archives

More Stories

In Praise of the Short Story (9/20/2000)

Word Processing (9/20/2000)
Clicking on the Web's Short-Fiction Offerings

Whistling Dixie (9/20/2000)
Short Stories Built Southern Fiction, but All That's Left Now Is Redneck Lit

More from Eileen Murphy

The View From the Hill (12/26/2001)
Resevoir Hill Residents in Their Own Write

Home Front (11/7/2001)
In The Struggle To Renew Reservoir Hill, Housing Is The Biggest Battleground

Growing Pains (10/10/2001)
A Reservoir Hill Childhood, Yesterday and Today

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