A Languid Narrator Spins a Southern Tale

WITH his 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ``A Summons to Memphis,'' Peter Taylor planted a magnolia in the garden of great Southern storytelling. His latest novel, ``In the Tennessee Country,'' is no less rooted in red clay.

The new book's narrative meanders forward and back; some stories are told twice while others lead nowhere; and suspenseful hints are spread liberally. While the novel is a masterpiece of sustained narrative voice, it also demonstrates the limitation of the first-person medium. ``In the Tennessee Country'' proves that a tale can never be more compelling than its narrator.

Nathan Longfort launches his story by announcing its focal point: In every generation, some Tennessee men ``of good character'' respond to an ``inner compulsion'' and vanish.

Beginning when he is a small boy riding on a funeral train carrying the body of his grandfather, a Tennessee senator, Nathan explores this notion.

In his reminiscence of the train ride, Nathan introduces ``Cousin Aubrey,'' the senator's illegitimate nephew. Nathan alludes to Aubrey's disappearance shortly after the train ride, and his encounter with him many years later in Washington. From the outset, Nathan describes Aubrey and the course of his life with special reverence. Their eventual reunion is the story's climactic moment.

Yet through the intervening events of Nathan's life - his father's death, his interest in art, his marriage, his academic career, and the birth of his children - he demonstrates an aversion to strong emotion and constantly belittles his ability to remember details. In one passage, Nathan describes a childhood attempt to sketch a portrait of his mother: ``I was amazed and annoyed by my total failure to capture anything in the way of physical resemblance or any suggestion of the serious expression she ordinarily wore. There was always some element that seemed to be altogether missing from the picture.''

This shortage of insight and vivid detail pervades the story, leaving one to suspect that Nathan is a deluded or untrustworthy narrator. Here, many readers will begin searching between the lines for the truth.

But alas, this is not a mystery novel. By the end of the book, Nathan solves his own puzzle by realizing that his obsession with Cousin Aubrey is actually a search for the kind of man he might have become. The book ends with Nathan attempting to understand why some men, like Aubrey, run away to lead adventurous lives while others, like himself, assume the shackles of tradition and familial expectations.

When Nathan's son Braxton becomes one of these ``lost'' men, embarking on an artistic career, Nathan describes the choice as ``one of the inalienable rights that people have - those that have the need of it or the strength for it. The rest of us have the ordinary tedium of life to deal with - to contend with. That is all.''

While the message is poignant, many readers will only remember the tedium exemplified in passages throughout the text. When Nathan isn't tuning out a juicy conversation between his aunt and her second husband, he's describing his high school years as a ``nonperiod,'' or admitting that he lacks ``the energy, the motivation, the courage'' necessary to chase his own dreams.

Nathan's character is so befuddled by life that by the time he unveils his grand discovery, the reader is less concerned with its profundity than the opportunity to return the book to the shelf and set off to do something dramatic.

Ironically, Taylor's novel fails because he succeeds so well in fashioning a portrait of a rather torpid protagonist.

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