The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $10.00
AT THE END of a pike that leads out from Nashville is a little Tennessee town (and as Tennessee pikes are called for the towns they run to, that pike's name is the same as the town's) and in that town is an antique and well-known house which once belonged to Peter Taylor's family. The house is now a museum and is still furnished with the objects Peter Taylor knew as a child.
Mr. Taylor once took some friends there to show them his old family world. On the way he described again and again an enormous painting of an ancestor which hung in the main hall. As you came up the main stairs and turned the corner and started around again, you were confronted with the giant relative (he may have been on horseback) which Mr. Taylor had told them about-spell-binding, looming, very old.
Mr. Taylor said that when he and his friends arrived at the house-where he had not been for many years-they went up the stairs to see the portrait. When he turned the corner he saw the same painting of the same ancestor in the same place-but it was very small. Instead of huge it was moderate say two feet by three feet instead of five feet by seven feet. All those years the painting had been growing and growing in his memory. He knew that nothing in the house had really changed. The confusion arose in his proud memory. And, after all, when he was little that painting was much bigger in proportion to his own size than it is now.
PETER TAYLOR'S short stories-like the visit to the family house-are revisitations to assess the real dimensions of the countryside where he grew up. We read through the towns of Collierville, La Grange, Grand Junction, Saulsbury, Chatham, Thornton on our way to and from Memphis and Nashville.
In his tales Mr. Taylor contrasts other times-family backgrounds, former family relations and gatherings, former friendships, the old-time "atmosphere of a prosperous and civilized existence"-with each character's experience and evaluation of the present.
Mr. Taylor's central characters perform their own self-analysis. Each is tremendously curious and thoughtful about what and why something is happening to him and why he reacts as he does. The reader experiences with him every nervous blush, sweat, grope, and moment of insight.
A woman on a train is brought to realize the emptiness of her married life through confrontation with two old spinsters-once childhood friends. Each of the three is bringing home dead or dying relatives. Cornelia is excluded from her accustomed level of Memphis society because her husband is Jewish; she has no children. In parting Cornelia says to one spinster, "I suppose you'll be met by a hearse . . . and Patty will be met by an ambulance-and I'll be met by Jake." This sentence "was one of those sentences Cornelia began without knowing how it would end." As if through a faux pas, she has recognized the equally lonely and grotesque dimensions of each of their lives.
A man visiting his home town with his wife and children examines his bizarre behavior at a drugstore (a childhood hangout). "It seemed to him now that he had gone to the drugstore on purpose that morning. . . . It had been intended to satisfy some passing and unnamed need of his, but the adventure had cut too deep in his memory, and into what was more than mere memory . . . cut beyond all the good sense and reasonableness that made life seem worthwhile-or even tolerable." Matt finds his dark face-his hostile violent face-"a monstrous obtrusion on the relatively bright scene that was reflected all around."
This man-while confronting his unknown self at the breakfast table-is surrounded by his old but liberal parents and his intelligent and gentle wife. They are open, non-exclusive people-maybe, the reader has a feeling, the brightest in the community. By the end of the story "At a Drugstore" Matt has conquered his monstrous image. He is bright, perceptive; he has been able to escape the home town, the home section of the country; and he has been able to make peace with his town and his father. However, Matt is more capable of appreciating, of externalizing and dealing with frustration than many people.
Than many people in the society of which Mr. Taylor writes. His stories are set in an upper-middle-class Southern world with grand pretensions-debuts, lots of servants, and best families. The proprieties of this world require that many things be hidden. People are driven to deviant behavior. Mr. Taylor's stories are shadowed by drunkards, bastardly men, spinsters, estranged wives who are dependent on their servants as their only friends, only family, only life. In almost every story a servant holds the family together. The servant presides over the rituals and amenities which bolster status, esteem, sanity-like having fingerbowls when there is grapefruit for breakfast, like having someone to keep the family supplied with "Negro jokes," or someone to fire when a mistress's personal problems become too overwhelming.
BESIDES the perceptive narrators who are able to maturely integrate their lives, Mr. Taylor describes those top-drawer people who grow into unhappy insurance men and car dealers. They are often incapable of a generous and rich relationship with a partner, with children, with-simply-any other human being. Mr. Taylor suggests that the family can effectively balance the fear and uncertainty of life. Yet this kind of security is not automatic. The man in "At the Drugstore" can say that he and his father "had . . . made these adjustments and concessions that a happy and successful life requires. . . . They had long ago absolved each other of any guilt. As two men, they respected each other and enjoyed each other's company. All the rest was nonsense!"
Mr. Taylor keeps returning and returning to the past and to border-state Tennessee as it was, to examine its images and realities. What people think, the complexion of their blushes and disfigurations, the houses they decorate-these are the things Mr. Taylor's stories are about. Included in the complex stories is a subtle description of black-white relations in the thirties, forties, and fifties: as in the narration of a "fancy woman's" concern for what the kitchen help think of her when she visits a rich gentleman's house for a week. Or "A Wife of Nashville's" relations with her cooks. Or the bitter introversion of old Aunt Munsie: a one-time slave, she comes to realize that to Dr. Tolliver's children-whom she raised-she is Aunt Munsie only in the village of Thornton (where people know one another's real place anyway).
Mr. Taylor hasn't given up his home territory. He uses its gossip and legends to extraordinarily document its life. The collected stories of Peter Taylor are a loving and polite indictment of Tennessee society, and of most everybody.