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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : An Exploration of Fatherly Passion : TAFT by Ann Patchett ; A Richard Todd book; Houghton Mifflin $21.95, 305 pages

October 06, 1994|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

I don't believe in ad hominem--or in this case, ad feminem--reviewing, and I mostly object to the proposition that you should belong to a human category--gender, race, ethnic group--to write about it. But it would be gross affectation not to notice that Ann Patchett is a young white woman. Not only has she written one of the most winning evocations of a father's love that I can think of, but she has lodged it in a first-person narrative by the middle-aged black manager of a Memphis bar.

Patchett takes a number of chances along with this one, and they are carried off with an occasional roughness. It is tempting to speak of her gait as coltish; not only because of the roughness, and because this is only her second novel--her first was the well-praised "The Patron Saint of Liars"--but most of all because "Taft" has a gait ; lilting and with considerably more than the promise of the thoroughbred.

John Nickel, the narrator and protagonist, is grounded in a satisfying convention--the stoical voice of a man weathered by what he has been through and seen; as a private eye, say, or as in this case, behind a bar.

Nickel tells things as they are. How they are includes the fact that he is kind and that kindness is a chink he has learned to live with.

Patchett knows how to present goodness as an affliction, and how to write a good man without making the reader feel pushed.

She grounds Nickel before she lifts him. He was a jazz drummer: "I was as solid a drummer as you were going to find and everybody wanted me. I made the other people look good. That's what a good drummer does. He keeps everybody steady and paced. He shines his light at just the right time. That was me."

He had a girlfriend, Marion, whom he got pregnant. He treated her indifferently. Then he saw his son in the hospital. "A visit to a nursery may not be Paul's road to Damascus: I was a bad man before I saw and a good man after, but it's something like that. Children get right to the point."

It might as well have been the Damascus road; it is just as rough. Nickel, previously cool and self-centered, wants desperately to make a family with Marion and Franklin, his son. Now it is she who turns cold; she will agree only if he gives up drumming, gets a steady job managing the bar, and pays her way through nursing school. He does, abandoning his art for his fatherhood. And when she graduates, she abandons him and takes Franklin to Miami.

"Taft" is the story of Nickel's long penance and gradual redemption. That sounds heavy. In fact, Patchett's novel is light-voiced, almost lilting, about sorrowful things, and she manages the lightness and the sorrow with an equilibrium that does both justice. Until the end, we don't see Franklin, but Nickel's longing and memories evoke him vividly. And as surrogates, the author introduces two waifs: Fay and Carl Taft, a white brother and sister in their late teens, who themselves are adrift after the death of their own loving father.

Fay persuades Nickel to give her a job in the bar; Carl, moody, drugged-out and under his sister's protection, is allowed to hang out there. Fay, seemingly a flower child, falls wholeheartedly in love with Nickel; reluctantly he responds. It is mainly the need of a bereft father for a child, and of a bereft child for a father; Patchett manages to infuse it with a strong sexuality whose constraints both inflame it and purge it of offense.

The final reconciliation takes a good deal of hectic plot work. But the plot is all that Patchett forces, and only a little; her characters are splendidly free and unpredictable. Perhaps Nickel is slightly abstract in his identity as an African American, but this is no real flaw.

Always believable, he becomes more than his ethnic identity. Patchett, in fact, creates a counterpart for him in Fay's and Carl's dead father. The loving and graceful details of the older Taft's fatherhood converge with Nickel's own journey; at one point they achieve a ghostly joining. Together, they are a moving emblem of fatherhood's rarely explored passion.

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