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BOOK REVIEW : A Southerner's Life Judged Too Harshly : IN THE TENNESSEE COUNTRY by Peter Taylor ; Alfred. A. Knopf $21, 221 pages

October 03, 1994|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gentility is like paint: It hides flaws without making them disappear. Writers in the genteel tradition, such as Peter Taylor, have always derived their power from this. The whiter and smoother the paint, the more shocking it seems when we finally glimpse cracks and rot underneath.

"In the Tennessee Country," Taylor's first novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Summons to Memphis," opens promisingly. The narrator, Nathan Longfort, grows up nearly smothered in gentility--in Civil War nostalgia, in the privileges accorded a family that has produced a Tennessee governor and U.S. senator--so it's natural that he should brood over symbols of escape and freedom.

Among these are folklore tales of "vanished men." A banker walks out of his office on his lunch hour, leaving his top hat behind, and never returns. A farmer sets fire to his house so his family can collect the insurance and runs off with a woman from a neighboring farm.

Then there is Aubrey Bradshaw, sired out of wedlock by the brother of Longfort's maternal grandfather, the senator. Even though Longfort meets Bradshaw on only a few brief occasions--most notably on the funeral train bringing the senator's body home from Washington, D.C., to Knoxville in 1916--he becomes obsessed with "Cousin Aubrey" as a kind of shadow self.

The weeklong train journey is an epic that Longfort, then 4, remembers all his life. The train hits a calf that has wandered onto the tracks; fires and derailments force halts; Longfort's uncles, who will die young of dissipation, get so drunk that at one point they are left behind. But Longfort's chief memory is of Bradshaw, the outsider, whose ostentatious grief irritates the adults and who glares at the boy with undisguised malevolence.

Why such anger? Longfort has to spend his childhood deciphering codes. References to Bradshaw's "irregular kinship" are only one of these. An uncle's suicide--he shoots himself--is called an accident. Longfort's father dies of a disease that is never named. His mother goes into ecstatic trances when reciting a romantic poem whose heroine, free and passionate, seems to be her alter ego. But why?

Only decades later does she tell Longfort that Bradshaw asked her to elope with him when she was 14. Longing for the intellectual life that Bradshaw seemed to represent, she agreed--but Bradshaw, out of a mixture of cowardice and loyalty to his sole benefactor, her father the senator, backed out at the last minute. After that, she disdained him; Bradshaw, after the senator's death, himself became one of the "vanished men."

Longfort, encouraged by his mother, tries to become an artist. Instead, he winds up as a professor and a noted art historian. He views this as a terrible failure. Casting back for reasons, he speculates that having so many relatives die when he was a boy numbed his feelings. In high school and college, pressured to conform, he "learned too early that I was able to do so."

When his son does become a serious and successful painter, Longfort is doubly shamed. Retired by now, he intensifies his search for Bradshaw, who, he believes, has bravely taken the road less traveled, "plunging into the terra incognita from which no man willingly returns."

Here is where the novel falters. Longfort judges his life too harshly--this is clear to us, but he doesn't seem to realize it even after exhaustive reflection. "In the Tennessee Country" can be read as the story of a neurotic, unbalanced by his mother's thwarted ambition and by a past so vivid that he can hardly get a grip on the present.

Yet for a neurotic, Longfort has done amazingly well. He is a good husband and father; his academic career is more substantial than anyone could achieve without using his primary talents.

If we can't take Longfort's "failure" as seriously as he does, it's equally hard to think of so intelligent and likable a man as simply deluded. And if the modern-day scenes seem pale after Taylor's rich evocation of old-time Tennessee, it may be the author's grip that has loosened.

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