Short stories of life in the South during the '30s and '40s

The Old Forest and Other Stories, by Peter Taylor. New York: Dial/Doubleday. 356 pp. $16.95. Peter Taylor is one of the Southern writers who became prominent after World War II -- one whose roots are in the classical short story of epiphany as practiced by Chekhov, Henry James, and James Joyce, as well as in the class- and tradition-conscious matrix of his native Tennessee. His stories are loose, ruminative chronicles of social and family conflict and of gradually earned individual self-understanding.

In a typical Taylor story, a grown or aging man looks back on his childhood (``The Little Cousins'') or on his adult relationships with family (``Porte Cochere''), and indulges critical, often disillusioning second thoughts about the codes he has lived by. The Southerner's pride in social order and personal gentility is sometimes shown up as supercilious myth (``The Death of a Kinsman,'' ``Two Ladies in Retirement''), sometimes embraced even harder as a means of maintaining, not just decorum, but emotional equilibrium (``Rain in the Heart''). Parents manage empathy with those odd, alien creatures: their children (``Promise of Rain''). And cautious, timid people surreptitiously admire the scarcely imaginable lives of people more adventurous than they (``A Friend and Protector'').

These stories, plus seven others, make up this new collection, which is basically a companion volume to Taylor's 1969 ``Collected Stories.'' All but two are drawn from his previous collections.

A few are downright weak: ``A Walled Garden,'' for instance, is a monologue unimaginatively derived from Browning, and ``Allegiance'' is a pallid imitation of Jamesian introspection at its archest and flattest.

But several others show Taylor at his very best. ``A Long Fourth'' is an ambitious, complex portrayal of a Nashville matron who's forced to notice the similarities between her own domestic problems and those of her Negro maid, and also the shallow cruelty her family regards as social superiority. This realization veers close to the shock-of-recognition quality of some of Flannery O'Connor's stories.

``The Scoutmaster'' is a moving, seriocomic depiction of one family's fall away from innocent complacency into contact with some uncomfortable and unwelcome facts of life, and its consoling recollection of ``golden days when a race of noble gentlemen and gracious ladies inhabited the South.''

``The Gift of the Prodigal'' is an elegant story about an elderly, ailing widower's loving-disapproving relationship with his wayward son, a charming, much-married troublemaker whose constant appeals for aid and understanding, far from alienating his father, ease the old man's insularity and loneliness and bring him into refreshing intimacy with a ``life that is not my own.''

In ``The Old Forest,'' whose action is set in 1937 and remembered almost a half century later, a young Memphis businessman's essentially innocent involvement with a girl from his city's ``demimonde'' threatens his imminent marriage and leads to an eye-opening confrontation with his own, and his class's, social and moral nature. Its crisis of action occurs in a wooded area that once was primeval wilderness; its shape is a simultaneous enclosure and expansion -- and it's a memorable dramatization of Taylor's continuing fascination with the marginal man slowly entering and apprehending a larger, more complicated world he never made, and was never prepared for, but knows he belongs to.

Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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