Going home again, and again. Taylor's first novel in 35 years looks back to see the present
A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 209 pp. $15.95 The art of the short story, like that of the short poem, is the art of knowing what to exclude and when to stop. What's left out counts almost as much as what's finally left in. Recognized as a ``master of the short-story form'' (his 1985 collection, ``The Old Forest and Other Stories,'' won the PEN/Faulkner Award for best fiction), Peter Taylor knows how to use the ``negative'' or ``white'' spaces between paragraphs and sections -- and in the novel, chapters -- to register things too deep for words.
So it should come as no surprise when the reader of Taylor's first novel in 35 years reaches what feels like the end only three-quarters of the way through the book. Although not fully resolved in the way a ``well-constructed'' novel should be by this point, a certain amount has been understood by the main character Philip Carver, things have changed, appropriate action has been taken. Formally speaking, a story had been told.
Next, there is the white space before a new chapter.
Then we read, ``I find that I must write a postscript of a kind that I would earlier have deemed the unlikeliest of possibilities.''
The postscript is another 50 pages, roughly the length of a good Taylor short story.
This unlikely postscript does indeed take us beyond what we had any reason to expect, given our familiarity with Taylor's previous work. So far we've witnessed the chronicle of the Carver family, Tennessee gentry: the farm origins of father Carver in Taylor's mythical Thornton and his career in law, his ambition and drive, his marriage and family, the breakup of his prosperous business connection with a powerful banker, the comic-tragic remove of his family -- wife, four children, black servants -- from Nashville to Memphis, the conflict of values these places represent, the coming unglued of the mother and wife, the emotional fugue of the two sisters, the departures of the sons -- one to war and death, the other to New York and genteel sterility. Much has been conveyed, all in Taylor's carefully modulated, storyteller's prose.
As in so many of his stories, Taylor shows us in ``A Summons to Memphis'' how the Southern family, and by analogy any family, can be seen as the incubi of loneliness and subdued tragedy. Still, new equilibria are established; life goes on. Lucidity and decorum are somehow maintained, if only analogically by Taylor's prose style.
This first part of ``A Summons to Memphis'' ends with Philip's return to New York. He has discovered just why his life has not added up, why his youthful romance went awry, and how after the mother's death the Carvers had been working at cross purposes. Considering Philip's return to New York and his tragic understanding, the novel sounds like a long goodbye to the South and what it represents.
In the last quarter of the book, Philip moves beyond acceptance to something like expectation of good in his own life, really for the first time. Forgetting has not sufficed. So the novel, this long goodbye, is also a not-at-all tentative hello.
Philip returns home, again. Going ever deeper in his confrontation with his past and his own responsibility, he recognizes his father and sisters as they really are and have been. He sees his old flame at a resort and is tempted to make a scene. Finally, he makes the connection between his father and sisters and his old romance. In a moving passage, he sees his father in a new light: ``There was no self-pity in his face and no regret. He seemed merely a man thinking of what he was going to do with himself this day and perhaps tomorrow.''
And Philip? Can he go home again?
Returning again to New York, Philip himself confronts not his past but his future. Returning to New York means returning to Holly, a woman from Cleveland with whom he has shared an apartment on 82nd Street. The quality of Philip's faded concept of himself is most movingly registered in Taylor's handling of this sad relationship. Like Philip, Holly has lived in the great anonymous city alienated and close to despair, and for similar reasons, as they gradually discover once they begin to talk to each other about the once-forbidden subject of their families. For this novel about family life to end this way, with this aging, almost purely symbolic pair in deep conversation, reflects not only the drift of modern life but also Taylor's ability to salvage meaning from it, meaning of such intensity that these final pages have the power of poetry.
Throughout ``Summons to Memphis,'' Taylor's style -- cool, transparent, and refreshing as water from a mountain spring -- serves as well as it ever has to advance his purpose, which is to understand the survival of honesty and integrity in the modern, self-conscious world. With this book there can be no doubt that Taylor belongs artistically in the company of those mostly Southern peers, poets and storytellers, who have always recognized in him something special: the roll-call includes Flannery O'Connor, Robert Fitzgerald, Allen Tate (who makes a delightful cameo appearance in this book), Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.