The Old Forest and Other Stories
The work of the Southern writer Peter Taylor has often been compared to that of Henry James, Jane Austen, and Anton Chekhov. Like theirs, his stories and plays are leisurely paced and focused on the manners and assumptions of the middle class. Influenced by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks, the formalists with whom he studied as a college student, Taylor writes primarily traditional, realistic stories concerned with the disintegration of family life and the vanishing values of bygone eras. His settings are usually the cities of the middle South he knew growing up, particularly Nashville and Memphis and, occasionally, Saint Louis. The Old Forest and Other Stories, Taylor’s eighth collection of short fiction, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, includes fourteen stories, more than half culled from previous collections. Linked by the theme of time’s effects on the values and relationships of upper middle-class Southerners and their servants, the stories in this new grouping offer stunning examples of Taylor’s craftsmanship. Each is an intricate, ironic portrait that moves subtly yet inexorably toward a quiet moment of insight and truth.
The most common type of story in this collection is the memoir, a progressive retrospective usually narrated by an elderly man. Seven, fully half of the stories collected here, have first-person male narrators. Five of these stories are retrospectives. Of the remaining seven stories, one, “The Death of a Kinsman,” is written as a short play; four are narrated in limited third-person point of view, evenly divided among male and female centers of consciousness; and one, “Bad Dreams,” is told from the omniscient point of view. “A Walled Garden,” the remaining story, is the only first-person retrospective narrated by a female; it represents a form of dramatic monologue spoken by an elderly Memphis matron to a young man waiting to escort her daughter out for the evening. Like many of the stories focusing on male protagonists, “A Walled Garden” concerns the relationship of parent and child. Here the mother relates a past incident from her daughter Franny’s childhood. Unconsciously paralleling her cultivated garden with Franny, the mother reveals her struggle to civilize and control her daughter as well as the walled garden.
More common, however, are stories depicting the ironic, often strained relations between father and son. Three pieces offer examples: “The Gift of the Prodigal,” “Promise of Rain,” and “Porte Cochere.” Of these, the first two are first-person retrospectives; the last is a third-person study in the paranoia of an aged father.
In “The Gift of the Prodigal,” an elderly man watches from an upstairs window of his home the approach of his son Rick, the black sheep of the family who returns repeatedly needing help from his aging father. Told primarily through flashbacks, “The Gift of the Prodigal” paints a portrait of two intertwined lives: the son’s sordid adventures and the father’s gradually diminishing life. A widower crippled by the diseases of old age, the father frets about the gravel in his driveway, the few remaining duties he has at his business since he has partly retired, and the meaningless morning mail. Still an influential figure in his community, the father is in a position to rescue his son and thus, indirectly, hold the reins on his son’s life. Yet, ironically, the father needs his son as much as the son relies on his father. Not only does the father delight in recounting Rick’s troubles to other family members, but through his son’s adventures, the father also escapes vicariously the narrowness of his own life. This is the “gift of the prodigal” that no one else can offer: exciting stories of passionate women, scandalous love affairs and spoiled marriages, tales of gambling and violent encounters with mobsters and corrupt policemen. “I find myself listening not merely with fixed attention,” the father says at the end of the story, “but with my whole being . I hear him beginning. I am listening. I am listening gratefully to all he will tell me about himself, about any life that is not my own.” Appropriately, “The Gift of the Prodigal,” which subtly depicts the interrelationship and mutual need of father and son, of listener and storyteller, is the first story in this new collection by Peter Taylor. The concluding words of the grateful, listening father offer an invitation to the reader to listen carefully to the voices and the stories that follow.
While “The Gift of the Prodigal” captures a father’s perverse delight in the circumstances of his son’s life, “Promise of Rain” records a father’s disappointment in his youngest son and his struggle toward acceptance of the boy. The voice is that of the father. Will Perkins, a small financier, finds himself at fifty nearly idled by the Depression of the early 1930’s. With his idle time, Mr. Perkins becomes a keen observer of his youngest son, Hugh Robert, who displays a self-absorption and vanity repugnant to the older man. A young man of Mr. Perkins’ day was not so fascinated with himself. He studied serious subjects in school, history and Latin, not the speech courses that interest Hugh. His education completed, he took a position under his father in the family business, as the older Perkins sons do, and filled the roles prescribed by family and community. Hugh Robert is the first to seek an identity of his own, and his father fears he will leave home without warning, with only a note to say he is gone. The boy’s fascination with himself clearly reflects the narcissism of a new generation; his interest in speech and theater—he later becomes a director of a small theater in another town—presages the occupational direction and mobility of a later era. To his father, however, these are troubling, even embarrassing signs, and the tone of his narrative reflects this concern. Yet Taylor skillfully allows his narrator’s tone to modulate, so as to capture not only the father’s disappointment but also his fondness and love for his son, even his nostalgia for the Depression era. The father, in fact, struggles to see his son sympathetically, and he is rewarded for his efforts with a rare insight one afternoon when his son waits anxiously to hear his own recorded voice on the radio. “I had a strange experience that afternoon,” the father comments at the conclusion of the story.I was fifty, but suddenly I felt very young again. As I wandered through the house I kept thinking of how everything must look to Hugh, of what his life was going to be like, and of just what he would be like when he got to be my age. It all seemed very clear to me, and I understood how right it was for him. And because it seemed so clear I realized the time had come when I could forgive my son the difference there had always been between our two natures. I was fifty, but I had just discovered what it means to see the world through another man’s eyes.
In contrast to the leisurely paced “Promise of Rain,” with its depiction of empathy between father and son, “Porte Cochere” is a tightly structured tale about the growing paranoia of an elderly man with regard to his children. The events take place within a short time on one afternoon. Old Ben, the central character, has been celebrating his seventy-sixth birthday with his grown children, several of whom have traveled distances to be with their father. Nearly blind, old Ben faces encroaching darkness and death, but, more immediately, the loneliness and desolation of old age. He longs for love and respect from his children to lessen his pain, yet he is incapable of evoking or asking for the attention he craves. Instead, he attempts to manipulate his children to get his wishes, especially his favorite son, Clifford, whom, ironically, the old man...
(The entire section is 3205 words.)