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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

As young men from Fisk’s Landing begin to return home from Asia in caskets, Swayze Barksdale and high school classmate Arch Kidd are recruited to play trumpet for the graveside ceremonies. Set in 1951 in a cotton town resembling author Willie Morris’s own Yazoo City, Mississippi, Taps constitutes Swayze’s recollections of his seventeenth year. During burials, one player echoes the other, and their melancholy notes in turn resound in the memories of a grownup trumpeter.

Though he forms a loving attachment to pretty Georgia Applewhite, Swayze is a lonely youth whose closest bonds are to his golden retriever, Dusty, and to a couple of older men: Luke Cartwright, the World War II veteran who recruits him to play “Taps” for casualties of the current war, and Potter Ricks, the gentle, courtly mortician who buries them. It is through these local sages, and through sexual initiation and rejection, that Swayze comes of age, which is to say that he learns to accept the inexorable expense of aging, “the terrible fluidity of life on this planet.”

A rich evocation of growing up in the rural South, Taps derives its title from the tattoo Swayze plays and its unity from the dire occasions spread throughout the year when he performs his musical service. Its drama comes from the unstable romantic triangle that Luke Cartwright forms with beautiful, talented Amanda Pettibone and Leroy Godbold, her rich, arrogant, and violent husband. Morris’s prose is sometimes colored purple, but it never lacks the same awe over the power and pathos of his medium that Swayze brings to the music he releases from his trumpet.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, April 8, 2001, p. C1.

Chicago Tribune, May 3, 2001, p. 11.

The Christian Science Monitor, April 5, 2001, p. 21.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 10, 2001, p. 22.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (April 22, 2001): 23.

Publishers Weekly 248 (April 2, 2001): 19.

USA Today, April 9, 2001, p. D04.

The Washington Post Book World, April 8, 2001, p. 15.