Portrayal of small-town life travels familiar ground

Taps By Willie Morris Houghton Mifflin 340 pp., $26

"Taps," the new posthumously published book by the late writer and editor Willie Morris, demonstrates the paradox that good writers, even ones with a gift for storytelling, do not necessarily make good novelists.

That Morris, who died in 1999, was a good writer is beyond dispute. Particularly in his autobiographical works "North Toward Home" (1967) and "My Dog Skip" (1995), Morris weaves funny, poignant stories and characters together with incisive observations and elegant, witty language.

All of Morris's nonfiction books, even his lesser successes, are consistently thought-provoking and readable. Yet, somehow, these skills are largely absent in Morris's fiction, which may explain why he wrote only a few novels in his productive career.

Set in the small Mississippi Delta town of Fisk's Landing in the 1950s, "Taps" covers a year in the life of 16-year-old Swayze Barksdale, the only son of a widowed mother. The story meanders through a long series of incidents in Swayze's life and the life of the town, few of them of any real consequence.

Taking the novelistic road much traveled, Morris has his protagonist jump through many of the expected hoops in this tepid, coming-of-age story. Swayze experiences first love, a brief spiritual quest, conflicts with his mother, rivalry with the captain of the football team, humiliation on the basketball court, and other familiar rites of passage.

In the novel's opening pages, Swayze, a trumpet player, is enlisted to play "Taps" at a military funeral for a returning casualty of the Korean War. For the next year, Swayze and his misanthropic friend, Arch Kidd, play at many such funerals. While these performances provide a bit of structure to an otherwise plotless novel, by the end of the book, they become a tiresome and ineffectual device.

Morris frequently furnishes premonitions of dire events, but too often these events are anticlimactic - incidents of only minor tension. Possibly sensing the story's singular lack of drama and the need to go out with a bang, Morris has one of the main characters murdered, quite out of nowhere, in the last few pages of the novel. The murderer and the motive are never uncovered, but the whole event rings so false that few readers are likely to care.

"Taps" abounds in colorful characters with odd names: Roach Weems, a fireman; Herman "The Kraut" von Schulte, a German loan shark; Lydia Fortenberry, a spiderlike librarian; and Asphalt Thomas, a basketball coach who eats chalk, leaves, and other unlikely comestibles when he gets mad. Few of these characters are memorable, and too many of their charming eccentricities come off as self-conscious window dressing. Villains Leroy Godbold - a wealthy, bigoted, communist-hating landowner - and his bullying son Durley, border on cliches.

In his sharply written memoirs, Morris's hometown of Yazoo City, Miss., becomes a place nearly as colorful, complex, and resonant as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. In "Taps," despite much florid description of the town, the people, and the countryside, Fisk's Landing never really comes to life. It remains a stage set in front of which the author manipulates his two-dimensional characters.

"Taps" touches on many of the themes that run through all of Morris's work: small-town life and societal change, race relations, and the complex burden of Southern history. While the quality of the language in the novel is reminiscent of Morris's masterly skills, it is also a reminder of how much more successfully he treated these themes in his best nonfiction.

David Conrads is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Kan.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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