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Tales From the Old South

In the Miro District and Other Stories by Peter Taylor Alfred A. Knopf, $7.95, 204 pp.

By Giselle Falkenberg

THE RECENTLY PUBLICIZED trend of Northerners migrating to the "Sunbelt" and the election of a Southern President have sparked a new interest in the South. The flourishing of the New South is exemplified not only by Carter's image of an earthy moralizer, but also by city problems and a growing population. Northern preconceptions about a prejudiced Old South are rapidly disappearing.

Though published in 1977, In the Miro District does not concern itself with the New South at all. The new collection of short stories by Peter Taylor, who was born in Tennessee 60 years ago, place the reader in the stereotype of an Old Southern atmosphere. Set in the days of the author's youth, the stories are ages apart from the breakneck speed of Cambridge (or even Memphis) life today. The author takes plenty of time to develop each of his stories, and never failing to announce his frequent digressions, speaks intimately to his audience, as he would to a member of the family or a friend. In fact, his world consists exclusively of families, friends, and servants. It is self-contained, homely world where values and etiquette figure large. Taylor neither justifies nor attacks this world. Instead he takes it for granted and treats only the conflicts produced within it.

There are divisions in all of the stories--gaps between the two social worlds of Memphis and Nashville, gaps between the small town world and the world of the plantation. "The Captain's Son," "Daphne's Lover," and "The Hand of Emmagene" describe how tradition and etiquette block individual efforts to move from one social sphere to another. Tolliver Bryant Campbell (the captain's son) revolts against his alcoholic Memphis parents by marrying into a respectable Nashville family and moving into their home. "Representative of the old social values" of Nashville, the parents can only resent Tolliver's inherited wealth, his laziness and above all his intrusion: "That might be how you did things on a Mississippi plantation, but not in Nashville." After he has found himself unsuited for a government job, Tolliver lapses into alcoholism together with his wife. Meanwhile his wife's family concentrates on protecting the embarassing couple "from the public gaze of Nashville." The Campbells move back to Memphis, where they finally consummate their marriage and have a son, bringing the story back to its beginning. Despite his childish attempts to "marry" a Nashville home, the captain's son is merely a product of his family. And the family in turn is only a link in the fated circle of eternal "exchange between the two cities."

The only thing that gives the characters some individuality to counterbalance the strong pessimism is Taylor's complex psychological insight. In "Daphne's Lover," as in "The Captain's Son," an adolescent observer unravels the difference between his own respectable, and the hero's unrespectable, family. In both stories only the perspective of the younger generation bridges the social gap. The teenaged narrator realizes the imprisoning morality of his home, but because he is both too timid and too wise to rebel against its overprotectiveness, he must watch the vain revolt of the hero.

In "Daphne's Lover," the narrator, who has a crush on a girl named Irene, makes the fatal mistake of bringing his friend Frank (the central character) along to see her:

'I am the master of my fate,' he said, suddenly beating his breast. Irene laughed breathlessly. I only sighed and shook my head, reflecting how mistaken Frank was in what he had said.

While Frank lives on the illusion of free will, his observer lives his life through Frank:

...my interest in Frank's romances seemed greater than ever, somehow. It was as if once I knew what my own life was to be, I needed to participate more wholeheartedly in the lives of others...--I tell myself that a healthy imagination is like a healthy appetite and must be fed. If you do not feed it the lives of your friends, I maintain, then you are apt to feed it your own life, to live in your imagination rather than upon it.

Even if the behavior of Taylor's characters is predetermined, even if they cannot face their fates, the reminiscing adolescent observers, rebellious heroes, and conventional relatives at least have a bit of personality.

But when the author lessens the depth of his stories, as he does in "The Instruction of a Mistress," and "The Hand of Emmagene," his tales lose much of their appeal. As cruel revelations of the obsessions with which Taylor's characters "feed" their minds, all these stories lack the moderating presence of an adolescent observer. The reader can't sympathize with the presumptuous homosexual poet who keeps his mind busy with the loveless education of mistresses. Then there is the niece who chops off her hand, because she can't transcend her low upbringing, the couple who finds its marriage without meaning or direction, and the mother who substitutes the transposing of bank figures for the obsessive chaufeurring of her grown-up son. They are all pathetic, lackluster characters.

Against the failure of some of the author's shorter prose poems and stories, the title story shows the author at his best. Three generations clash "In the Miro District." Again it is a grown-up adolescent who tells the story of his relationship with his grandfather. Following social convention, the middle generation has forced the two upon each other.

But the grandfather refuses the invitation to move into the house of his children and play the role of an "absurd martinet... Driving his Dodge touring car and wearing his gabardine topcoat and his big straw hat," he prefers to turn up at irregular intervals to visit his grandson. The adolescent, by letting himself be caught in drinking and sex orgies, tries to convince his grandfather that they have nothing in common. When he goes to bed with a respectable girl only to shock his grandfather, he succeeds in making the old man accept his assigned role in the family. The grandson is left with "complicated feelings," because he finds out to his surprise that his grandfather had loved him, while he had only been a tool of his parents.

It is this slow development from the adolescent's misconception to his understanding of the old man, added to the hindsight of the grown-up narrator, that makes the characters come alive. In his leisurely, rambling pace, Taylor gives the reader a superb description of the Old South:

...anywhere one turned in the road one was apt to see a bent old man and a stiff-necked little boy--trudging along a country road together or plodding along the mainstreet of a town. The world I am speaking of isn't the hard-bitten, monkey-trial world of East Tennessee that everybody knows about, but a gentler world...around Nashville which...to the first settlers...was known somewhat romantically, and ironically, and incorrectly even, as the Miro District.

That Old South is rapidly dying out. If Peter Taylor's book shows that the Old South has made an indelible mark, the book also leaves one with little regret for its loss.

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