Southern Discomfort

Doug Griffin/Toronto Star/Getty Images
Peter Taylor, 1985

Let’s imagine a street of big houses in the 1930s—deep lawns, servants in the kitchen, and a clear sense of who belongs and who doesn’t. The paperboy doesn’t. The neighborhood girls may be sweet on Tom Bascomb, but he lives in an apartment building and even at thirteen everybody knows that he doesn’t quite fit in. The elderly Dorset siblings do, simply because they always have. Their ancestors made money in town before moving on to the West, and they belong even though their house lies near ruin and they have grown shabby. Brother and sister are forever speaking of what they’ve sacrificed for each other, and the neighborhood parents find them unspeakable. Yet they wouldn’t dream of keeping their boys and girls from the children’s party the Dorsets give each year; an invitation to that oddly indecent affair has become a “way of letting people know from the outset who you were.”

“Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” first appeared in The Kenyon Review and won the 1959 O. Henry Award as the year’s best short story. A print of the Bronzino painting that provides its title hangs on the Dorsets’ wall, and a plaster replica of Rodin’s Kiss sits embowered in an arrangement of paper flowers. The old couple describe their annual evening as a dance, but they’re the only ones ever to take the floor; they waltz beautifully together, too beautifully, and the children know that such a pair shouldn’t. This year’s party will, however, have a surprise, for little Ned and Emily Meriwether have decided to smuggle in their paperboy. They will make Tom pass as if he were Ned, and at a certain moment he will cover Emily’s face with kisses.

The short story writer Peter Taylor was born in Tennessee a century ago, and described this sad and intricate comedy as an allegory: its characters may all be white, but its concern with passing and incest does seem to align it with the great questions of Southern fiction. That’s not wrong, and yet it’s not entirely right either, for in its last pages the story twists, in a way that anticipates Alice Munro, and the work we finish isn’t quite the one we thought we were reading. A first-person narrator appears, who years later uses the old tale of the Meriwethers’ prank to show a newcomer how things once were in this closed and settled world. The folly doesn’t belong to the Dorsets alone, and by its end the story has gone deep into the history of the region’s settlement, and become a rueful account of the tension between rootedness and restlessness in American life itself.

That indirection is typical of Taylor’s best work, and that tension is something he knew a great deal about. He came from a small cotton town called Trenton, a…

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