Friday, July 11, 2014

[Book Review] The Old Forest and Other Stories by Peter Taylor

Fiction/Short Stories

Raka reviews THE OLD FOREST AND OTHER STORIES by Peter Taylor (Picador,1996 c1985)

Peter Taylor’s place in the pantheon of southern writers has always confused me.  Although he is praised as a master stylist and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel A Summons to Memphis (which, I must note, a friend urged me to read when I moved to Memphis  twelve years ago), he doesn’t consistently make the list of southern greats like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, or Flannery O’Connor.  Recently, I checked out Taylor’s short story compilation, The Old Forest and Other Stories, and was once again perplexed by his second tier status.  Maybe,  now that I am a Memphian, I am biased because he sets several of his stories in our city, but I think my appreciation for Taylor truly comes from the fact that when I reach the end of many of his works I want to know even more about his characters.

Case in point is Taylor’s  “The Old Forest,” the longest story in the collection.  The narrator, Nat, comes from an affluent white southern family in Memphis and is on the eve of marrying his high society fiancé, Caroline.  Like many young, privileged men of his class, Nat dates other women on the side; women like Lee Ann, who do not mix with his social class.  When Nat and Lee Ann are in a car accident at the edge of the old forest (what is today part of Overton Park), Lee Ann gets out of the car and walks into the forest.  Lee Ann’s disappearance and the danger that it connotes threatens Nat’s engagement and future happiness.  “The Old Forest” gives readers a glimpse into the inner working of social classes and the rules that governed life for whites in the South, but also the types of relationships to which many readers can relate.  Like the story “The Gift of the Prodigal,” in which a middle- aged father grapples with his conflicted feelings towards his wayward son, Taylor’s stories are very particular to time and place, but his themes are often universal.

Taylor is also very willing to grapple with the layered meaning of race in the South, and several of his best stories focus on the interaction of whites and African Americans.  In “A Friend and a Protector,” the white narrator describes the peculiar relationship that his uncle and aunt have with a black man who works for the family and always seems to get into scrapes with the law.  The complicated relationships between African Americans who work as domestic help in white southern families is revisited in other stories such as “Two Ladies in Retirement,” where an aunt competes with the black nanny/cook for the affection of her nephews.  

Although this collection provides vivid portrayals of the lives of rich white southerners, Taylor eschews pat answers to questions of race, class and power relations. Often his stories end without easy conclusions or a dramatic flourish (which can be frustrating) but this approach allows the reader to focus on what has transpired and, possibly, to formulate a future for the characters beyond the text.  Perhaps what Taylor does best is to describe the complex and messy nature of human relations.  As much as I enjoyed A Summons to Memphis, this collection, with its greater diversity of plots and characters, was even more compelling.  

Raka, Central Library

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