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Richard Eder

A SUMMONS TO MEMPHIS by Peter Taylor (Knopf: $15.95; 209 pp.)

October 05, 1986|RICHARD EDER

The craft in "A Summons to Memphis" is impressive. A middle-aged narrator explores the old web of family relationships, mainly with his father, that he believes has broken him. And he does it through a shattered narrative that struggles for gentlemanly control and is crisscrossed and undermined by myopia, repetition and erratic spurts of attention and wandering off. Narrator and narration, in other words, are identical.

Craft is certainly not all there is to Peter Taylor's first novel in more than 30 years. It is set, like many of his short stories, among the remnants of southern Tennessee's long-gone gentry. There are some shivering moments of recognition in it, the ability to convey a dramatic confrontation in a few artfully told details and an infallible mastery of period, manners and motivation.

But Taylor's old alligators move slowly. The narrator, a bachelor who is effete, though not celibate, has a very long throat to clear before he can really get started. In his self-unveiling, there is more tugging at buckles and buttonholes than is justified by the rather wizened body exposed. The book resembles one of those meals where the waiter expends a lot of time and virtuosity boning a fish so bony that, when the job is done, the result makes a very small presence on the plate and is consumed in about three bites.

"Summons" explores the reality of a family wound. Phillip Carver, the narrator, begins by assuming that it is a wound; only at the end does he come to question it. It is the wound inflicted by a powerful father upon his wife and children. Or is it, we wonder finally--and Taylor shifts the question with great skill and compassion--the tendency of children to blame their insufficiencies and disappointment on the convenient fact of having a strong father?

Phillip Carver lives a dusty and vaguely unsatisfying life as a rare book dealer in New York. His companion is a woman who provides him with more solace than passion. His sisters, Betsey and Josephine, are energetic and eccentric spinsters living in Memphis and keeping an eye on their father, George, an 80-year-old widower.

Once a vigorous and commanding man, George hovers on the edge of senility but never really crosses over. For several years, he attended nightclubs in the company of a series of flashy and much younger women. This didn't much bother Betsey and Josephine. What provokes Phillip's summons to Memphis--in the form of twin telephone calls from his sisters--is George's intention to marry a respectable middle-aged widow.

The book's action, such as it is, deals with this and another effort by the old man to break out, and his children's success in stopping him. They assert their power as a half-conscious act of revenge for the power he once exercised.

But revenge is an illusion. In the drift of insight that comes upon Phillip as the book ends, he begins to realize the essential indeterminacy of what parents do to children, and children to parents.

The heart of the book is Phillip's efforts to explore and wrestle with the real or imagined family wound. It consisted, we learn, of George Carver's decision, 40 years earlier, to uproot his family from their flourishing life in Nashville and move to Memphis. This followed what he regarded as an unforgivable betrayal by his best friend and business associate. The friend, a budding tycoon, had engaged in fraudulent ventures without informing George, who was his lawyer.

Phillip was 8 at the time, his sisters were debutantes and his mother a Nashville belle. George's insistence upon moving and cutting all ties to Nashville ruined their lives, the three surviving children came firmly to believe. (Another son, cheerful enough about it all, went off to war and was killed; family legend somehow connected this to the move, as well.)

Their mother had a breakdown and lived as an invalid. Betsey's fiance followed her briefly south, but George's rage against Nashville drove him away. On the other hand, he also managed to drive away Josephine's Memphis beaux. Like a true exile, he could accept either neither the country he left nor the country he left for.

As for Phillip, he attributes his own neurasthenic temperament to the move, as well as blaming his father for the breakup of a romance of his own. Only as he travels back and forth from New York to Memphis in response to his sisters' summonses do other notions begin to take shape: that his father may have been a man of valor and accomplishment and not simply a selfish tyrant; that perhaps he was both things at once; that the wounds we bear are those we choose to bear.

Taylor makes a grand set scene out of the family's peregrinations. His portrait of George as a young man is a rich mix of social, regional and personal history. The final battle between the old man and his children--and a final intimacy that dawns between him and Phillip--are witty and touching.

The problem, and it was one I felt with Taylor's last collection of stories, "The Old Forest," is that his characters are not really up to their complexities. The psychological and social subtleties of these feudal survivors are matched by little grace of spirit. They have thoroughbred twitches but lumpish souls.

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