JANUARY 8, 2018
PETER TAYLOR’S SHORT FICTION radiates confidentiality. In the work assembled in Library of America’s two-volume Complete Stories (1938–1959 and 1960–1992), he invites readers into the domestic lives of prosperous, strait-laced, white Southerners — primarily Tennesseans — between the 1920s and ’40s. He does so, first, by means of his instantly memorable, eminently quotable narrators. In “A Spinster’s Tale,” the collection’s first story, an aging woman remembers candidly, “My brother would often get drunk when I was a little girl, but that put a different sort of fear into me from what Mr. Speed did.” After such an opening, how can readers not finish the story? That one sentence contains enough for a story itself, or even a novel: the keen retrospection; a hint of transgression; the violative force implied by the juxtaposition of “a little girl” and “what Mr. Speed did”; and the comic spirit, reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor, in the name “Mr. Speed.” Although Taylor’s novella A Woman of Means (1950) doesn’t appear in this collection, its unassuming first sentence has rung in my head for years: “The girls kept diaries, but you never had a chance to read them.” The girls here are the narrator’s older sisters, and, as in “A Spinster’s Tale,” this sentence invites readers into the circle of family intimacy — a circle which, nonetheless, is shadowed with mystery. That mystery’s coziness underlies Taylor’s fiction: readers are invited to occupy an affection-filled, familiar, domestic world where proximity to the forbidden (what’s in the sisters’ diaries, what Mr. Speed does) becomes commonplace.
Taylor also draws us into his fictional world by means of the doubleness inherent in free indirect discourse: that is, a third-person narrator who adopts a tone — sometimes transitorily, sometimes in a more sustained manner — that evokes the voice of one (or more) of the story’s characters. “Cookie” begins, “Two nights a week, he had to be home for supper, and some weeks, when his conscience was especially uneasy, he turned up three or four times.” Those italics bring us almost as close as we can come to the first-person, and indeed the whole sentence exudes a deeply subjective confidentiality: whoever this man may be, he is troubled by internal misgivings whose outward signs — how many nights a week he sups at home — are, in Taylorian fashion, intensely domestic. They imply another consciousness — that of the wife — who also cares deeply how many nights a week he comes home, perhaps for different reasons. Hovering over the sentence are the unspecified activities that keep the narrator away from home some nights. The narrator accomplishes all of this psychological sleight-of-hand while remaining in the third person. I’m convinced that Taylor and his great literary comrade Jean Stafford learned as much about fiction, and free indirect discourse in particular, from such 19th-century masters as Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Anthony Trollope as they did from proto-Modernist and Modernist writers such as Anton Chekhov, Henry James, and James Joyce.
The comparison with Trollope extends to the stories’ complacent social milieu. Perhaps the characters are holding on more tightly than we can see to a notion of antebellum past, but that effort rarely rises to the surface. The plantation world lies firmly in the 19th century for the doctors, lawyers, and other upper-class professional men — white men, it goes without saying — whose income subsidizes the coming-out balls, country clubs, households elaborately staffed with “Negro” servants (the stories are set, after all, in the pre–Civil Rights era), girls’ finishing schools, and, for sons, Southern universities around which the lives of Taylor’s characters revolve. These characters’ very lack of introspection makes those Joycean epiphanies so ubiquitous in 20th- and 21st-century fiction rare in his stories. Indeed, Taylor specializes in what might be called “anti-epiphanies.” In the overtly Freudian “Reservations,” a locked bathroom door separates a just-married couple on the brink of, as it were, their coupledom. (The bride is trapped, ahem, behind the door.) This inability to see each other frees up the couple to give vent to their worst suspicions and convictions about the other’s dishonesty and mercenary tendencies: “‘You’re no gentleman, Miles,’ Franny pronounced, carefully keeping away from the door now. ‘As Daddy said of you to start with, you have all the outward signs of a gentleman but that’s no evidence you’re one inside.’” Yet, by the end of the story, the couple have not only buried the proverbial hatchet, they’ve become willing to live with repressed discord as the very foundation of their marriage: “Silently they were toasting their own bliss and happiness, confident that it would never again be shadowed by the irrelevances of the different circumstances of their upbringings or by the possibly impure and selfish motives that had helped to bring them together.” Taylor’s narrator articulates his characters’ smugness and refusal of self-knowledge so expertly that he reminds me of collection editor Ann Beattie’s remembrance of the author in her introduction as “a raconteur who never told stories for easy laughs any more than he let them inflate into tragedies.” Tragedy and mockery mingle in the story’s just-quoted final sentence so closely that the reader both pities and scorns these benighted — or enlightened? — newlyweds.
As country-club insiders such as Miles and Franny epitomize, Taylor does not concern himself primarily with outsiders. Rather, his heroes and heroines inhabit the center of what comes to seem, in the course of 1,300 pages, a fiercely materialistic world, akin to Trollope’s Barsetshire, in which concerns about propriety override almost everything else and where a particularly outré bit of interior decoration might be a “permanent card table.” Nor do the stories, to descend to cliché, take us inside or underneath the surface of this social world. Confidentiality and intimacy are not synonymous — however congenial the storyteller’s style — and if Taylor’s stories invite us in, they also hold us at arm’s length. This distancing also occurs within the stories, whose characters’ estrangement from each other, pet names notwithstanding, infuses the worlds they inhabit. When a separated married couple reunites in “A Wife of Nashville,” for instance, their re-coupling retains an air of ambiguity: “Their reconciliation, whatever it meant to [him], meant to her the acceptance of certain mysteries” — an acceptance in which readers become complicit. And even though Harriet, the matronly protagonist of Taylor’s early masterpiece “A Long Fourth,” comes as close as any of his characters to breaching the racial divide, in this case between her and her African-American housemaid Mattie, the women’s closeness — rooted in a shared loss of son-figures — is, perhaps inevitably, ephemeral: “It seemed as though Mattie had used a special language common to both of them but one they had never before discovered and could now never recover. […] [I]n Mattie’s eyes there was an unspeakable loneliness for which [Harriet] could offer no consolation.”
That unrecoverable language of intimacy and “unspeakable loneliness” is shared by most of Taylor’s characters, whose brisk and brassy speech belies a world of separation, separateness, and estrangement. Helen Ruth, the protagonist of “A Wife of Nashville,” stands for many of his characters: “She felt that she would be willing to say anything at all, no matter how cruel or absurd it was, if it would make them understand that everything that happened in life only demonstrated in some way the lonesomeness that people felt. […] her loneliness, the loneliness from which everybody, knowingly or unknowingly, suffered.” That private and unspoken “lonesomeness” haunts Taylor’s stories, but in such a commonplace way that, his dalliance with Southern Gothic in “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time” and his late experimentation with the Jamesian trope of ghosts notwithstanding, I do not think of him as a capital-S Southern writer. With few exceptions, Taylor’s stories eschew 20th-century grotesque and other Southern gothic tropes, and rely instead on what Richard Howard terms a “provocative neutrality of structure, tone and circumstance.” The key word here is “provocative,” because the world of these stories is anything but neutral. Upheaval and violence of all kinds — and of course the familiar Southern taboo of incest — form the subtext of Taylor’s stories, but their surfaces remain remarkably unruffled.
The stories’ garrulous yet evenhanded tone, in addition to Taylor’s remarkable skill, may have made his work especially appealing to William Maxwell and other fiction editors at The New Yorker, where Taylor’s short fiction appeared regularly from the 1950s to the ’80s. I think of him alongside other fixtures of The New Yorker’s fiction pages such as William Trevor and Nobel Laureate Alice Munro as short story writers who turn out work of such consistently high quality that one begins, almost, to take it for granted. Yet Taylor — and the same holds true for Trevor and Munro — is anything but a “New Yorker writer” if that term pejoratively connotes a practitioner of smoothly literary commercial fiction. If the stories do possess a certain smoothness, just as the social world they depict seems consumed by propriety, what critic Alan Williamson calls an “interest in what is just outside the circle of the permissible [which] is […] the true subject of [Taylor’s] fiction” always threatens to disrupt that placidity. Marital infidelity sometimes lies “just outside the circle of the permissible” in Taylor’s fiction, not only for sexual reasons but also because it involves the breaking of that all-sacred vow in a world whose very tissue is made up of socially-sanctioned promises.
The unnamed protagonist of “Cookie,” for instance, goads his African-American servant, Cookie, into practically accusing him of consorting with “[t]hem ladies from the sand banks. […] They comes there to meet the ladies — all sorts of menfolks, married or not.” The move is strategic: he suspects Cookie possesses knowledge of his activities outside the home — “Hattie says she seen ya! But she’s a liar, ain’t she, Boss-Man?” — and he wishes to provoke her into speaking out of turn so that his wife will have no choice but to discharge her. (He never does answer Cookie’s question directly.) But either his wife’s bond with Cookie is too strong, or — just as likely, in my opinion — she is half-aware of her husband’s possible philandering and willing to overlook it, in which case to fire Cookie would be to admit too much:
“Oh, I suppose you’ll think you have to fire her.”
She looked at him, her features composed again. She ran her hand over her hair in a series of pats. “No, no,” she said. “I can’t fire Cookie. I’ll speak to her tonight. It’ll never happen again.”
“Now I think of it, perhaps she ought to be sent on her way after talking like that.”
“I’ll look after the matter.”
He poured himself a second cup of coffee and, as he drank it, he watched his wife closely. He frowned again and said, “Why, she might talk to you in that way some day. That’s all I thought.”
She smiled at him. “There’s no danger. I’ll have a talk with her tonight.”
This all-too-mundane-sounding conversation — but note the husband’s surveillance-like gaze on his wife — shows, in fact, a married couple circling around what is “just outside the circle of the permissible” and consciously deciding (“there’s no danger”) to stay within that circle. What happens when married men come to meet “them ladies from the sand banks” is, finally, whisked out of consciousness as briskly as the wife pats down her hair. Yet through expert use of free indirect discourse, Taylor reveals at the end of the story not necessarily the appeal of the “sand banks” women to the protagonist, but rather how profoundly his home life disgusts him: “[H]e could still hear their voices indistinctly — their senseless voices. He began to walk with light, sure steps over the grass — their ugly, old voices.” I find “Cookie” a profoundly disquieting story not just because of this glimpse of the narrator’s contempt for his married life, but also for his wife’s complicity in whatever happens (and readers never do learn for sure) on the nights he doesn’t eat at home. Perhaps Fanny of “Reservations” will mature — if that’s the right word — into the mystery-accepting matron of “Cookie.”
A more responsible reviewer would take the opportunity of this Complete Stories, ably edited and introduced by Beattie, to survey Taylor’s development from the effortless-seeming skill of his early stories to his experimental “story-poems” of the 1970s and the baroque style of his late-career Jamesian novellas. Yet, devoted to Taylor’s fiction though I am, I found it impossible to read through the stories chronologically. I was overwhelmed by this edition’s sheer density and found myself reaching for his 1969 Collected Stories and subsequent collections to revisit old favorites such as “Reservations,” “At the Drugstore,” “Two Pilgrims,” “The Hand of Emmagene,” and “In the Waiting Room,” and then dipping into the Complete Stories only when necessary. (Eventually, and haphazardly, I did read the Complete Stories’ contents in their entirety.) I fear such high-quality, expensive books will not be snapped up by readers new to Taylor’s work but by die-hard aficionados like myself and, of course, by libraries. I wish the publication of this Complete Stories were accompanied by a paperback Selected Stories, edited by Beattie and reproducing her excellent introduction, which rightly emphasizes the Freudian aspects of Taylor’s fiction. I have already mentioned a number of exemplary stories, and I’ve no doubt Beattie could distill these two books to a more accessible 300 pages.
Any such selection would include “1939,” Taylor’s justly famous autobiographical short story and Künstlerroman-in-miniature about his and Kenyon College classmate Robert Lowell’s Thanksgiving road trip from Gambier to Manhattan to visit their girlfriends — in Lowell’s case, Jean Stafford. Perhaps this is my favorite story of Taylor’s because, like he was when he wrote it, I am in my 40s and look back at my education at a liberal arts college from the vantage of 20-something years beyond. But I wish to celebrate “1939” not for my own vicariously nostalgic attitude toward it (it was originally published in The New Yorker as “A Sentimental Journey”) nor for the light it throws on Taylor’s literary generation — if only he had tossed in a fictionalized Randall Jarrell! — but for the story’s enduring freshness, which stems from something close, dare I say, to wistfulness. I don’t mean to imply that the rest of Taylor’s fiction is ponderous, but it is haunted by that “unspeakable loneliness” whose note is first sounded in “A Long Fourth.” “1939,” on the other hand, celebrates camaraderie, and especially the prickly solidarity experienced by young writers and artists who are both friends and competitors.
However, when I reread “1939” to find instances of that camaraderie, I discovered a clear-eyed ruefulness whose depths I hadn’t plumbed on previous readings. The narrator, for instance, evokes his and his literary friends’ encounters with “tramps” around Gambier in a way that makes him sound like that loneliness-obsessed “Wife of Nashville”: “And yet, looking back on it, I remember how happy those tramps always seemed, and how sad and serious we were.” That sadness and seriousness, the sense of something that hovers between the unspoken and the unspeakable, pervades Taylor’s fiction — even if he has his autobiographical narrator in “1939” describe himself dismissively as “a kind of journeyman writer.” Don’t be fooled. Taylor has journeyed deep into the human psyche, and if you accompany him on the pilgrimage afforded by these Complete Stories, you will emerge transformed.
Eric Gudas is the author of Best Western and Other Poems (Silverfish Review Press, 2010). His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Poetry Flash, Raritan, and elsewhere. He currently teaches in UCLA’s Writing Programs division. For more information, visit ericgudas.com.