By Willie Morris
Houghton Mifflin, 338 pp., $26
Willie Morris died in 1999, which makes his novel Taps
posthumous but not unfinished. His widow, JoAnne Prichard Morris, who oversaw every aspect of the manuscripts preparation, who honored every change Morris indicated, has seen to that.
took the author decades to write. Morris began toying with the idea of a fictional work based on his own experiences growing up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, as far back as the late 1960s, the same period (1967-71) he served as editor of Harpers
. When he returned to Mississippi in 1980 he returned in earnest to Taps, a labor of love obviously, a work to join My Dog Skip
in popularity possibly.
The story is a year in the life of Swayze Barksdale (age 16), the season opener is early summer 1951 (with the Korean War at its height), the place is Fisks Landing (Yazoo City stand-in, pop. 10,184, staple of conversation: hearsay), and life there goes this way: divided -- between hill country and flatland; between planters and plain folk; between blacks and whites; between the living and the dead; and between what these citizens, good or bad, show of themselves and what they dont or cant, which, in the books violent climax, makes for a matter of life and death. Heavy-duty? Sometimes yes, more times no. Heavy-handed? In spots.
I began to see that everyone in the town seemed troubled, young Swayze observes after perhaps observing more than most 16-year-olds in a town he goes on to describe as a warehouse of tormented souls. His object by the time he reaches college at Sewanee? To remember with surging clarity how passionately I was trying to give a little sense and design to the things I had felt and learned and experienced. Its a tall order, but consider:
1) A fatherless boy on the brink of adulthood who worries about everything, who is miserable in the very tributaries of [his] soul, which prompts in or on him a sturdy trace of paranoia -- warts and rash and angst ... dread of the open grave and the mother ... perverse predilection for the Ricks Funeral Home ... and along with all this a proclivity for the desolate, the insufferable, the troubling.
2) A widowed, indomitable mother, a teacher of tap dance but with aristocratic forebears, who is fraught with an inordinate propensity for intrusion, a woman obscurely troubled and driven to search and research her sons every move.
3) A girlfriend, Georgia: spoiled, irreverent, unpredictable, stubbornly self-reliant and free, source of Swayzes joy, then sorrow.
4) The half father, half big brother to Swayze, Luke Cartwright: a man of truncated queries and unembarrassed silences, half redneck and half coat-and-tie, iconoclastic, ironic, a man who sensed the essential malevolence of things and aberrant behavior and other peoples limitations.
5) Rich boy Durley Godbold, whose limitation is being born the monster son of a feudal grandee of a father, his limit crossed when he learns of Cartwrights affair with Godbolds wife Amanda, daughter of a failed yeoman turned small time entrepreneur yet blessed with an essence of honor to go with her iron sense of self.
And 6) Potter Ricks, owner of the local funeral home, a central figure in those days, the talisman and necromancer and conjurer of the tale, the sad, the gruesome, the funny, custodian of our past. It is Ricks, along with Cartwright, who enlists trumpeters Swayze and his misanthropic friend Arch to play Taps for the towns multiple war dead over the course of these 12 months.
If the prospect from Fisks Landing looks gloomy, Morris story, for the most part, is not. And yet, early on we learn this from Swayze: The ornately polite and elaborate society of that old small town rewarded the child for keen observation and encouraged him to listen -- a society of extremes with secrets not easily honored and with some secrets apparently more honored than others.
Swayzes mother Ella, for one, is a case of barely contained hysterics. Swayze observes her but cannot justify, much less comprehend, her bizarre actions. And Swayzes father, a tall man ... of gentle countenance who died when the boy was 10, figures even less prominently in Swayzes recollections. Unless by the tap of Ellas feet were to hear of a husband and father (the authors own?) being secretly, repeatedly mourned.
JoAnne Prichard Morris will be reading from and signing copies of Taps at Burkes Book Store tonight, Thursday, April 19th, from 5 to 7 p.m. For more info, call Burkes at 278-7484.