In his last novel, In the Tennessee Country, published the summer before Peter Taylor’s death on November 2, 1994, a man, the narrator’s cousin, “chucks” his family, his home, and his identity, and disappears. What is important about Cousin Aubrey, however, is not so much his mysterious absence from the narrator’s life as his lingering presence in the narrator’s imagination.
The narrator, Nathan Tucker Longfort, begins his story with a journey he took as a six-year-old child from Washington, D.C., to Tennessee aboard a funeral train carrying the body of his grandfather, a late United States senator and former governor of Tennessee. It was during this trip that Nathan’s interest in Aubrey was aroused, and it was upon completion of it that Aubrey disappeared. Throughout his early years, Nathan Longfort attends a succession of family funerals which occasion the phantom-like appearances and disappearances of Aubrey Bradshaw, the “outside” (illegitimate) cousin who had been Nathan’s mother’s first love, and each time his interest in this mysterious cousin is intensified. This interest in Cousin Aubrey comes to represent not only a romantic fascination with the past, but an escape from the responsibility of the present. As a young man, Nathan pursues art history rather than painting. In so doing, he compromises both his talent and his integrity. His subsequent political maneuverings in academia are surpassed only by his ability to publish books that are mere rewrites of each other.
Repetition in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, however. In fact, in this novel Taylor uses repetition as a means of incantation. Anecdotes are told and retold, and their sheer weight gives the narrative a lethargic quality, a dreamy “atmosphere” (to use the author’s own word) that is characteristic of much of Taylor’s fiction. Expectation and tedium are beautifully counterpoised here. The plot develops in such small increments and in such waves of repetition that the reader ultimately feels stalled in time. The sweep of memory is a tide that builds steadily but almost imperceptibly until there is no distinction between past and present—or future, for that matter. According to the Chinese proverb quoted by the narrator: “Time is nothing . . . character and experience and precious memory is all.”
Peter Taylor’s Tennessee country is a state of mind, a way of thinking that lay’s claim to both one’s conscious and subconscious, one’s waking and dreaming. It is the juncture at which time and place cohere with the infinite and indelible. It is a comfortable place to be, a secure place to come to, but it is also an impediment to growth and development. The Tennessee country is also the South, and Nathan’s obsession with Aubrey is the Southerner’s obsession with his past, with the War, with history. This obsession stifles him, yet paradoxically gives him substance as memory attempts to sift meaning from events, extract knowledge from narration. The narrator is convinced that vision is attainable only through revision.
Through this leisurely journey into the sensibilities of the now retired art historian’s musings on his past, his family, and his career, Taylor implies that the creation of art is more a matter of choice than fate. Nathan Longfort’s real loss is not the cousin who vanished, but rather his own lost opportunities. His failure is a failure of nerve and of will and of effort. The recognition of his son’s talent is for Nathan Longfort a confrontation with his own failure. In the beauty and originality of Brax’s paintings’, the father sees the fulfillment of a promise he himself had abandoned. It is a small moment, yet pivotal to the meaning of the entire book. In reconciling himself to what is, to what has come to be, the father is left disconnected, enervated, and mute. Thereafter, the arrival of the morning mail, the ring of the telephone no longer cause him to glance up. That this son is named Braxton Bragg Longfort is apparently an ironic reference to the historic namesake who brought doom to Tennessee and, in effect, the whole Confederacy through his self-interest and ineptitude. This Braxton Bragg is perhaps more of a Nathan Bedford Forest in his unconventionality and his devotion to a cause, just as Nathan Longfort is in some ways the real Braxton Bragg.
Although Taylor’s first full-scale novel, A Summons to Memphis, won the PEN/Faulkner award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, In the Tennessee Country is the superior work. Its characters are more sympathetic (and complex), its humor more effective, its themes and ideas more compelling. Perhaps the greatest distinction is simply a matter of taste, however. While the first novel dwells mainly in an arid truncated world of the present, the second renders tellingly the lure of the past, where, despite folly and meanness, gallantry is at least expected and the heroic gesture is commonplace; where, for example, the recitation of poetry is a familiar part of family gatherings.
In this book, the telling is as important as the story itself. Nathan Longfort uses words generously, conjuring a scene with speculation when he lacks details. Thus, hearsay and even the barest skeleton of a story become a vicarious dramatic recreation, a tale not only to be related but performed as art, just as are Nathan’s mother’s dramatic recitations. Yet by filling in the gaps with his imagination, the speaker is really attempting to know in the deepest sense that which he cannot know literally. It is as though experience becomes real only when it is past, when it is consumed by time and preserved as art.
[In the Tennessee Country, by Peter Taylor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Press) 226 pp., $21.00]