Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Peter Taylor's final collection a mixed bag

10. The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court, Peter Taylor. Stories, 2-5, p. 324

Peter Taylor’s final story collection, which appeared in 1993 before his death in 1994, is a mixed bag. His “ghost” stories, including the title story and three brief plays, all leave something to be desired. It is when Taylor focuses on the mores and manner of his native Tennessee that he is at his best. Nowhere is this on better display than in The Decline and Fall of the Episcopal Church (in the Year of Our Lord 1952).

Consider this brief selection from an extended passage on what separated the “old-time” Episcopalians from every other church-goer in this small Tennessee town:

What a different breed they had been from their Methodist and Presbyterian contemporaries. They danced and they played cards, of course, and they drank whiskey, and they did just about whatever they wanted on Sunday. They indulged in what their Baptist neighbors called “that barbarous ritual, infant baptism.” They starved themselves during Lent, and they attended services on Christmas Day, even when it didn’t fall on Sunday. There were no graven images in the old church, and there was no altar stone, of course, but the Episcopalians had talked about the church as thought it were the temple in Jerusalem itself. That was what their neighbors resented. Yes, they always spoke of it as “the Church,” as though there were no other church in town.

This story and others – Cousin Aubrey, Nerves, The End of Play and In the Waiting Room – are reasons to pick up Taylor’s final collection. However, if you are unfamiliar with Taylor, his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Summons to Memphis, remains the one book of his to read.

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