(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The art of Peter Taylor is ironic and subtle. In a typical story, the narrator or point-of-view character is an observer, perhaps a member of a community who remembers someone or something in the town’s past that is puzzling or strange, or a character whose understanding of his or her life falls short of reality. In tone, the stories are deceptively simple and straightforward, masking their complex ironies in seemingly ordinary actions. Taylor does not experiment with form or structure in the manner of a Jorge Luis Borges or a Robert Coover, but his stories are not always about commonplace experience; the grotesque plays a major role in such stories as “The Fancy Woman” and “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time.”

Low-keyed and rarely involving violent action, the stories are more complex in their effect than at first appears, often revealing more about the narrator or the society than about the character being described. Their settings are often in small towns or minor cities in the upper South, Tennessee or Missouri, places such as those where Taylor lived as a boy and young man. Familial relationships, including those between husband and wife, are often central. Racial and economic matters enter into many of the stories, but such major social issues are generally depicted in the context of the social interactions of ordinary people. Nevertheless, Taylor provides considerable insight into the effects of the radical changes that affected the South in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

“Dean of Men”

Betrayal is a recurrent theme in Taylor’s short fiction, and it is no accident that the story he chose to place first in The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor is the relatively late “Dean of Men,” a recital of the history of the men in a family. The narrator, an older man and a successful academic, tries in the story to explain to his son the background of his career and his divorce from his first wife, the son’s mother. The story unfolds by an examination of the past, in which the narrator’s grandfather was a successful politician, governor of his state, and then United States senator. Younger men in his party convinced him to give up his Senate seat and run for governor again to save the party from a man he despised, and he agreed. It turned out that the plan was intended to get him out of his Senate seat. As a result, he gave up politics in disgust and lived out his life as an embittered man.

The narrator’s father was similarly betrayed by a man he had known all his life, who had installed the father on the board of a bank. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the friend promised to come from New York to explain doubtful investments he had made, but he never arrived, and the father was left holding the bag. In his turn, the narrator, as a young instructor in a small college, was used by other faculty members to block an appointment they all feared, but when the move was avenged by its target, the young man was left to suffer the consequences alone. In the aftermath, he left to take another job, but his wife did not go with him; both later remarried. The story is the narrator’s attempt to explain his life to the son who grew up without him. What the narrator is unaware of is the decline in the importance and stature of his family through the generations; his achievements and his place in life, of which he is unduly proud, are notably less important than those of his father, which were in turn significantly less than those of the grandfather. The entire family’s history is flawed by the men’s lack of initiative, their acceptance of what others do to them. This lack of self-knowledge on the part of a narrator will characterize Taylor’s first-person fictions as late as “The Captain’s Son.”

“A Spinster’s Tale”

The narrator’s or central figure’s ignorance of her or his own attitudes is present from the beginning of Taylor’s career, in his first published story, “A Spinster’s Tale,” a study of sexual repression. Taylor’s only explicit investigation of sexual deviance would come much later, in “The Instruction of a Mistress,” although “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time” contains strong overtones of incest. In “A Spinster’s Tale,” the narrator, the spinster of the title, is a woman whose youth was blighted by her fear of an old drunk who often passed the house in which she lived with her father and brother. As she tells the story, it is clear that her fear of “Mr. Speed” is a transference of her inadmissible attraction to her older brother, who also drinks, often and to excess. She is unaware that her irrational fear is really fear of any kind of departure from the most repressed kinds of behavior. In the old man, drunkenness is revolting; in her brother, she fears it only because her dead mother had told the young man that he would go to hell if he continued, but her brother’s antic behavior when drunk exercises an attraction on her that she struggles to deny. In her old age, she still has revealing dreams laden with sexual implications. The betrayal in this story, of which she is only dimly aware, is the narrator’s calling the police to haul away Mr. Speed when he stumbles onto their lawn during a driving rainstorm. She acknowledges late in life that she had acted “with courage, but without wisdom.”

“What You Hear from ’Em?”

Betrayal of one kind or another seems to be inevitable in the relations between races, especially as those relations undergo the changes brought about by the Civil Rights movement and the push for integration. Since most of Taylor’s stories are set in the South of the 1930’s and 1940’s, those relations are often between masters and servants, but that will change in the later tales. “What You Hear from ’Em?” is written from the point of view of an old black servant, Aunt Munsie, who lives in retirement, raising pigs and dogs and a few chickens. Her only real interest is in the lives of the two white men she reared when their mother died, and the question she addresses to people she meets in her daily rounds asks when they will return to the small town where she still lives. Their visits to her, bringing wives and children and eventually grandchildren, do not matter to Aunt Munsie; things will not be right until they...

(The entire section is 2589 words.)