Monday, July 31, 2006

Taylor's A Summons to Memphis a finely drawn tale of upper crust manners and mores

71. A Summons to Memphis, Peter Taylor. Fiction, 7-27, p. 209

Violent emotions seethe beneath a veneer of manners and mores in Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis. The 1986 novel of a proper, but perverse Memphis family won Taylor the Pulitzer Prize and was the capstone of a lengthy literary career.

Echoes of Edith Wharton reverberate throughout Taylor’s work. Both authors bring a surgeon’s skill, an artist’s sensitivity and a sociologist’s remove to their writing as they peel back the customs of the upper class to reveal the passions that lurk below the surface.

Wharton explored the mannered cruelties of Old New York. Taylor dissects the honeyed machinations of the Old South. In particular, he explores and exposes the conventions of the Memphis upper crust, whose traditions, manner of dress and speech display subtle, but important, variations from that of their counterparts in Nashville or Richmond, Lexington or Louisville.

A Summons to Memphis is the story of the Carver family; the father, George, and his three adult children, two daughters and a son. The children nurse unspoken hurts and resentments against their father – a needy despot whose rigid, unbending control over his family seems to extend from cradle to grave and which is always portrayed as well-meaning and in the children’s interest.

Their resentment begins in childhood when the family is uprooted from a comfortable life in Nashville and reluctantly relocated to Memphis because of the father’s need for a fresh start in business. As the children age, resentment turns to anger as prospective engagements and budding romances are quietly, but cruelly, ended.

The anger lies buried, surfacing only in the most passive of expressions, until, soon after their mother’s death, the father, now quite elderly, contemplates a second marriage. Faced with the loss of their inheritance, alongside their empty, unfulfilled lives, the children take action.

It is not giving too much away to say that the marriage never takes place. The story is not about the aborted marriage, but in how the grown children use the conventions of Memphis high society to take revenge on their self-absorbed father. Ultimately, there are no winners in this finely drawn novel, only survivors.

A Summons to Memphis was Taylor’s penultimate book. A final collection of short stories appeared in 1993. Taylor died a year later in Charlottesville, Virginia.

72. A Death In Belmont, Sebastian Junger. Non-Fiction, 7-28, p. 260

It would have made a fine magazine article.

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