Book Review: Peter Taylor's winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, A Summons to Memphis
Wikipedia uses the term “ruminations” to describe some of the working of themes in Peter Taylor’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Summons to Memphis, a term I always associate with the grinding, less than moderately paced “chewing of the cud” by cows (probably because cows are literally “ruminants,” who practice “rumination;” the same word, differently numbered definition). And there certainly is a “chewing of the cud” pace to this novel allowing for these “ruminations” to develop over time, which I do appreciate, but even at only 209 pages I’m not sure the narrative is dynamic enough to really make this a great novel. See this post’s title. But no! It’s fine, it’s fine. Who am I to disagree with the Pulitzer Board? I mean, I certainly enjoyed the book on some levels, but it also made total sense to me that Peter Taylor is better known as a short story writer (during his career he wrote several collections of short stories and only three novels of which “Summons” is his second) because of the way the story is paced and “ruminates” and especially the way it ends with an image that is open to interpretation and doesn’t tell us anything directly; a sort of slow zoom out by the writerly camera while “ruminating” on things that seem less-than-directly related to the events we’ve just witnessed (ah, the power of metaphor?). All of this smacks of short story writerisms, writerisms that often work powerfully in the condensed, tense nature of a short story, but perhaps only make for a sleepy novel, confusing at the end, because in novels we are mostly concerned about what happens whereas in short stories we invest in mood, in atmosphere (someone else has said that surely, I’m remembering that from somewhere, I did not pluck that out of the aether, not me, the master of the run-on sentence) and are delighted by obtuse metaphors and languid commentary on the human condition.
Anyway … no biggie. I enjoyed reading the novel and now I know who Peter Taylor is and I enjoyed reading about Nashville, a city with a special place in my heart (good old Franklin Pike) and Memphis, a city I’ve yet to visit. Speaking of, I bet Taylor’s got a slam-bang whopper of a short story about Memphis. Can anyone vouch for “A Walled Garden?” That really may be right up my alley.
Craig B is a thirty-something lover of books, movies, and rock and roll whose grandmother still worries that he might not be eating enough. (Love you, Grandma!) He lives with his charming wife in the small town of Berne, IN (in sight of the clock tower) where he busies himself keeping the Roses of Sharon in check and training his chinchilla in the ancient arts of the Ninja. Craig’s current favorite book is Buddenbrooks
by Thomas Mann.