A Summons to Memphis
Kate Vaiden is Reynolds Price’s sixth novel, and it has already renewed interest in a writer whose career had a strong beginning (A Long and Happy Life, A Generous Man) but then seemed to sag under the weight of several honorable, talkative, but less than gripping novels. As Price informs us in a prepublication note from his publisher, he has identified two sources from which his new work arose. One was the need to write a story that would have a direct relationship—“at whatever imaginative distance”—to his own curiosities about the past of his dead mother, who had been orphaned at an early age. The other was a wish to confront the tyrannical dictum of feminists “that members of a gender may not function with any security outside that gender’s narrow mental and physical confines—a man cannot ‘understand’ a woman and vice versa.”
The impact of early orphanage is indeed central to Kate Vaiden’s story, which otherwise, Price informs us, bears slight resemblance to the events of his mother’s life. Moreover, the telling of it in the first person involves for Price (who has always been a special pleader, so to speak, for the women in his fiction) a sustained feat of female impersonation that goes beyond mimicry to a sympathetic identification with every inflection of his heroine’s highly distinctive voice and every twist and turn of her erratic course. The effect of this impersonation is engaging in the liveliness of the narration and incident.
The time of the novel is from the late 1920s to the present, when Kate, “a real middle-sized white woman that has kept on going with strong eyes and teeth for fifty-seven years,” sets out to write her improbable history; the setting is north-central North Carolina—both town and country—with an extended interlude in Norfolk, Virginia, during the Second World War. After a childhood described as “normal as tapwater, up to a point,” Kate, at age eleven, is abruptly and violently orphaned when her volatile young father, Dan, murders her mother, Frances, and then kills himself in the graveyard where a cousin of Frances’s has just been buried. The circumstances are mysterious; we learn only that another cousin, Swift, is somehow involved. Kate, who is bright, a hearty reader, and a great talker, is taken in by her mother’s much older sister, Caroline, a stoical and kindhearted woman who had herself raised Frances when their parents prematurely died. Caroline gives Kate a good home in the little rural village of Macon; besides the aunt, the household consists of Caroline’s husband Holt and a young black cook, Noony, who soon becomes Kate’s confidante and adviser.
The child’s mourning for her much-loved parents seems brief, almost perfunctory, and she soon adjusts to her new life. Observant and quick-tongued, Kate gives us an arresting child’s-eye view of what it was like to live in that time and place:
First, it was tiny—not two hundred people, more than half of them black. No entertainment but summer revivals at the two white churches, Methodist and Baptist; and once or twice a year, a fishfry or Brunswick stew. Otherwise, you talked to the people you lived with and let them talk. Food and family were the only two legal subjects for the women. Men could talk about cotton, tobacco, Negroes, sex, Roosevelt, and money. I hung around men whenever they let me and spent long drowned weeks of time by myself.
She soon meets the first and greatest love of her life—a farmer’s boy named Gaston Stegall. Sex precociously becomes possible and Kate rushes to grasp it. A year later, at the age of thirteen (in the same month that Germany “ruined” France), Kate gleefully surrenders her virginity to Gaston. Her account of that event illustrates both her lifelong heedlessness and the delight with which she accepts her physical existence:
I knew less than naught about care and prevention; and when Gaston said he didn’t have a rubber, I swear I wondered what he needed to erase.
After that, in spite of no small pain, I saw in my head as clear as a vision the thing I was doing…. I was being as good to myself as I could. Better than anybody else had been. I was giving myself this long steady gift. The gift wasn’t Gaston exactly or the feeling but the whole bright day, well-made as a gold watch and much less predictable. And I pictured my face overhead in beech leaves—normal size and nobody’s raving beauty but a firm open face that could meet you unblinking with a likable smile. It said You will never be gladder than now if you live to be ninety.
I’m thirty-three years from ninety still, but the face didn’t lie. I won’t claim the day was the peak of my life. With all my badness I’ve enjoyed myself. But right to this day, I can see us there in that mossy furrow—every mole on the patches of skin we showed. And I feel Gaston Stegall toiling gently as a hot boy could.
But it is the fate of orphans, Price seems to be saying, to keep on being orphaned—or to orphan others. After three years of happy, secret love, Gaston is killed (or kills himself?) freakishly in boot camp following his enlistment in the Marine Corps. Shortly afterward, Kate, now only sixteen, makes the first of those abrupt, unpremeditated flights (or “fugues,” to use the psychiatric term) that characterize her behavior for the rest of the novel: without a word to her kind aunt or uncle, she boards a train to Norfolk where—in that sailor-swarming city—she intends to take refuge with her much older bachelor cousin Walter. There she encounters another orphan—a badly damaged one named Douglas Lee, who lives with Walter in what is evidently a discreet homosexual relationship; Kate becomes pregnant by Douglas, leaves him, bears a son, abandons the son to be reared by the ever-faithful Caroline, moves to Raleigh…. Kate Vaiden is crowded with events, and the narration of them speeds up as the novel progresses. Price in fact telescopes the next forty years of Kate’s life into approximately fifty pages, leading us to the point where she sets out to write her history.
In the background of Kate Vaiden there lurks another book—equally packed with events—that preceded it by more than two and a half centuries. At a crucial moment in Kate’s story, Price contrives to have a spinster librarian hand the girl a copy of the first major narrative in English written by a man fictionally impersonating a woman:
I turned to leave and there was Miss Mabel, bearing down on me fast with a big green book.
She held it out in both hands. “You’ve never had this” (she always spoke of having a book). Her eyes were bright as icepicks.
I took it—Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe…. I said “No ma’m” and checked it out to please her. It was still by my bed unopened when I left. Not till twenty years later did I find another copy, and by then it was too late to ask Miss Mabel if she’d offered me consolation or a warning that hot clear day.
No other reference is made to Moll Flanders and this one is easy to overlook. Once alerted, however, a reader familiar with Defoe’s novel can find suggestive parallels between Kate’s story and that of the early-orphaned, much-married woman living by her wits in early eighteenth-century England. Like Moll, Kate is resourceful, resilient, and brave. They are both ready at fateful moments to cut loose, to cut losses, to move on. Although both form attachments easily, they seem equally unburdened by grief or guilt when the time comes to abandon them. There are similarities, too, in the episodic structure of the two books and even in the plot: the reader may remember that Defoe’s novel, like Price’s, ends with the reunion (anticipated in Kate’s case) of an errant mother and her long-lost (and now successful) son—and in Tidewater Virginia to boot!
Too much emphasis should not be placed on this literary precedent. Kate Vaiden is very much Price’s original creation. In one respect, however, his novel is at a disadvantage not shared by Defoe’s. In Moll Flanders the heroine’s lack of inwardness and psychological complexity hardly matters to us, any more than it presumably did to Defoe’s contemporary readers. But in our more psychologically aware age, we are bound to perceive the discrepancy between the sharp intelligence and generosity of feeling with which Price has endowed Kate on the one hand and the blindness, even heartlessness, of her behavior on the other. Despite its semipicaresque qualities, Kate Vaiden exists essentially within the conventions of psychological realism, and Price has simply not made it credible that Kate—unfit though she may be for motherhood—would allow four decades to pass without even seeking news of her son or concerning herself in the least with the welfare and ultimate death of the good people who had raised her and later raised him. Such a woman might well exist, but Price does not persuade us that that woman is Kate.
It becomes clear eventually that Price is, through Kate, making a point about the psychology of orphans—“Leave people before they can plan to leave you.” Kate says to herself at a critical juncture. But her moments of insight, which mostly concern her conviction that she is being “led” by God or by some sure instinct of self-preservation, are insufficiently convincing, and her moments of remorse for the human wreckage in her wake are stillborn. The problem may be that Price’s identification with Kate’s voice and personality is too close to allow for the greater objectivity in characterization that another approach would encourage. But I doubt that many readers would wish the voice—and point of view—to be other than what they are.
It is a testimony to the energy and charm of Price’s style that we do not pause long over the improbabilities of the novel (among them the everlasting saintliness of Aunt Caroline and her son Walter) and a tendency to sentimentalize some of the minor characters. The language that Price has found for his narrator is vivacious, regionally colloquial, and playfully metaphorical without falling into the southern trap of excessive cuteness—a pitfall that Price in his other work has not always been able to side-step. The pace of the novel is exhilarating. In the headlong rush of Kate’s story, people (an old-maid schoolteacher, a blind piano tuner and his hill-country aunt, Gaston Stegall’s heartbroken father) and short scenes flash by, brought into vivid, momentary existence by Kate’s eye for unexpected detail and her ear for the true oddities of speech. Alternately touched, amused, or bemused, one finishes Kate Vaiden with a sense of its amplitude—and of having been entertained at a consistently high level.
The South that Peter Taylor characteristically evokes in his fiction is a world apart from that of Reynolds Price. While a number of Taylor’s stories deal with good country people (many of them living in or around the fictional small town of Thornton, Tennessee), his best stories are concerned with what might be called the social establishment of such sizable but provincial cities as Memphis and Nashville—particularly as it existed forty or more years ago. By drawing his characters from this network of “well-born” bankers, lawyers, and cotton brokers, their wives who preside over the social rituals of the community, their debutante daughters, and their sons who have joined the best fraternities, Taylor writes at a distance not only from Price but from most of the other writers that we associate with the South: Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty—to say nothing of Harry Crews and Barry Hannah. Taylor’s closest blood kin among southern authors is, I think, that now little-read but estimable novelist of a much earlier generation, Ellen Glasgow, who wrote about the Richmond equivalent of such a society in The Sheltered Life and They Stooped to Folly.
While Peter Taylor has achieved his high reputation as a writer of short stories, not novels, many of his most successful stories—among them “The Old Forest,” “The Scoutmaster,” “In the Miro District,” and “Porte Cochere”—are like condensed novels in their impact. Taylor has said that he likes to pack as much material as he can into a short story without losing the intensity characteristic of the form at its best. The family relationships that he explores—particularly those involving the warfare between fathers and sons—tend to be embedded in dense family history and social observation. His approach often seems more ruminative than dramatic as he circles his subject, tentatively drawing closer and closer to the heart of the matter.
Now Peter Taylor has produced a short novel—either his first or his second, depending on how one characterizes the much earlier (and still shorter) A Woman of Means (1950). The narrator of A Summons to Memphis is a middle-aged Memphis expatriate named Philip Carver; a rare-book collector and editor, he now leads a life of rather limited expectations in New York with a younger woman, Holly Kaplan. The novel begins with Philip’s reflections on the difficulties faced in the Memphis of his boyhood by old widowers who had middle-aged children and wanted to remarry. Drawing what may seem to be excessively fine distinctions, Philip says, “At least it is a certainty that remarriage was more difficult for old widowers in Memphis than it was over in Nashville, say, or in Knoxville—or even in Chattanooga, for that matter. One needs to know those other cities only slightly to be absolutely sure of this.” The tone is curious: Is Philip being funny or not? Apparently not, for he goes on to say, with at least limited plausibility, that the difficulty may arise from the fact that in Memphis “everybody…who is anybody is still apt to own some land” and “that whenever or wherever land gets involved, any family matter is bound to become more complex, less reasonable, more desperate.” The differences between Nashville and Memphis remain a sharp concern of the novel, and the tone with which these differences are dwelt upon remains ambiguous.
On a dreary late Sunday afternoon Philip, who is alone in his New York apartment (Holly having recently moved out), receives two telephone calls from his unmarried older sisters, Betsy and Josephine, in Memphis: Philip must come at once to help prevent the marriage of their old father, widowed two years previously, to “a respectable but undistinguished and schoolteacherish woman” named Mrs. Clara Stockwell. For this start, the leisurely, digressive narration moves back and forth in time, from the present in New York and Memphis back to 1931 and even beyond. In that year, we learn, Philip’s father, George Carver, who had been betrayed and nearly ruined by his business associate, Mr. Lewis Shackleford, decided to uproot his family and his law practice from Nashville and move both to Memphis, where he would make a new start. This move is perceived by Philip as the most traumatic event in the history of the Carver family. For reasons never entirely convincing, he sees it as having destroyed his sisters’ chance of a good marriage and his own chance for a happy, normal life; he even attributes to it the subsequent invalidism of his mother and the death of his older brother in the Second World War—a death that he believes his brother actively sought by enlisting in the Air Force.
Most of A Summons to Memphis is devoted to the past. So many aspects of it are explored that two thirds of the novel has passed before Philip even arrives in Memphis on his current mission. We hear a great deal about Betsy and Josephine’s coy, nonsexual “affairs” and the success of their real-estate business in Memphis; about the widowed George Carver’s mildly scandalous behavior with “youngish” women in Memphis nightclubs before he meets the more serious threat posed by Mrs. Clara Stockwell; about George’s earlier friendship with his betrayer, Lewis Shackleford; about Philip’s boyhood in Nashville and his wartime engagement to a nice Chattanooga girl—the only woman that he has ever truly loved. All of this—and more—is related to us by Philip with an abundance of documentary detail and a minimum of dramatized action.
What eventually emerges is that the traumatic move from Nashville to Memphis—so much insisted upon by Philip—really serves as a screen for a much less acceptable truth: that Philip and his still virginal sisters have been emotionally crippled—consigned to perpetual immaturity—by their attractive, elegant, successful, domineering, and possessive father. We learn that George Carver destroyed one daughter’s prospering romance with an eligible beau from Nashville and that he journeyed all the way to Chattanooga to break up Philip’s relationship there. Now it is the old man’s turn to be thwarted by his middle-aged offspring. Yet they love him, revere him, admire him. En route to Memphis, the neurotic and submissive Philip achieves a moment of insight recorded in a passage that is typical of his narrative voice:
I knew that he could not possibly have been aware, when he faced the very real necessity for himself of removing himself from the unhappy scene in which Lewis Shackleford had betrayed him, could not have imagined then that for the little thirteen-year-old boy in his household the removal would constitute a trauma he would in some way never recover from…. How could he understand the disappointment and shock the boy would experience at having the important transition of puberty and adolescence so abruptly interrupted?… The fault I found with myself…in my present mature view of human nature, my fault was that I had at the tender age of thirteen, and always afterward in dealing with my father, repressed my feelings about my father’s conduct. I had found no voice in me to protest. (But I knew I ought to have found the voice and having spoken out at the proper time ought by now to have forgotten all seeming injustice. Probably his own conflicts with his father he had protested and forgotten. That was the essence of maturity in a son.)
Philip, whose psychological insights remain skimpy at best, blames his failure to protest on his mother’s teaching that it was his “civilized and Christian obligation” to repress all feelings of rebellion against “that supreme authority, Mr. George Carver.”
Unfortunately, Peter Taylor’s way of circling a subject repeatedly before revealing its fictional core—a technique that contributes much to the distinctiveness of the stories—leads in the novel to prolixity and repetition. Taylor has always been inclined to reject the notion that good fiction must show rather than tell, and he has obtained some memorable effects through that lucid, reflective, and informative way of telling employed in his best stories. But without the compression and intensity contributed by the brevity of the short-story form, the telling gets out of hand. The same ground is covered too often without further revelation.
A Summons to Memphis goes to great lengths to avoid emotionally charged scenes of conflict or exchange between characters—those fully dramatized scenes that Henry James (Taylor’s mentor in other respects) regarded as integral to the art of fiction; one can in fact read dozens of pages without encountering more than a line or two of dialogue. We never know what George Carver might have said to cause the spirited Chattanooga girl to break off with Philip without saying goodbye—or what the middle-aged Carver “girls” might have said to Mrs. Clara Stockwell to cause her to bolt at the last possible moment. Everything is filtered through the consciousness of Philip, and Philip does not even bother to speculate on these matters. Without ocular proof, so to speak, we simply have to take his word, which does not inspire total trust, about events that sometimes appear inherently improbable. A reader might well speculate, in turn, on Peter Taylor’s choice of such a depressive and unforthcoming narrator. Are we meant to regard Philip sympathetically or ironically? Is he a bit of a fool or one of the walking wounded or both? In any case, he seems an inadequately conceived medium to convey potentially arresting experience.
It remains to be said that admirers of Peter Taylor’s fiction will not want to miss A Summons to Memphis. It is interesting to see Taylor at work on a more extended scale. While I do not think its aims have been successfully realized, the novel has passages of considerable power, humor, and pathos, and it provides yet another avenue by which we can approach that particular southern province that Taylor has made so distinctly his own.