Tag Archives: Southern Literature

The Barrowfields: Phillip Lewis

“Yet at last, he was only a man, who, like so many of us, had dreams that exceeded him.”

There are some places that imprint themselves so deeply in the people who live there, that either you never leave or you always come back. That’s the thought that occurred to me when I read The Barrowfields from Phillip Lewis. As the title suggests, the plot and its characters are tied to a particular geographical area: in this case, Old Buckram, North Carolina, “an achromatic town high in the Appalachian Mountains.” The Barrowfields of the title is an area which probably should be named the Barren Fields but somebody made a mistake along the way.  It’s a place “where by some mystery nothing of natural origin will grow except a creeping gray moss.”

Growing up in extreme poverty, Henry Aster is a cuckoo in the nest of this large, impoverished and nearly illiterate household. As a child, Henry grabs onto the power of books and never lets go, even at one point stealing library books and hoarding them under his bed for future reads. Eventually, Henry leaves home and goes to college and law school only to return when his mother (she’s constantly smoking–her one vice) becomes ill. Coming home is a mistake for Henry. …

The Barrowfields

Henry, with ambitions to become “a beloved American writer,”  and his horse-loving wife Eleonore, buy an abandoned mansion, built by an dying architect with a penchant for the occult. Its gothic, vlad-the-impaler design makes the house a unique, intriguing, yet daunting prospect. The house, “a monstrous gothic skeleton,” has a tragic history, but the Asters ignore it–even though of course they simply become another twist in the house’s past.

On a high shoulder of the mountain, half hidden by a row of wraithlike trees as old as time itself, sat an immense house of black iron and glass. During the day, it was an odd architectural curiosity. Due to a subtle trick of the mountain’s folding ridges, it seemed always to be in shadow, even when the sun blazed in a cloudless sky above it. From morning to night, it was cloaked in a slowly swirling mist as thick as smoke from a fire. At night, it brooded in darkness like an ember-eyed bird of prey on the edge of the mountain. Never before had a house been built like it, and never would another be built.

While Henry practices “a brief legal career with one of the two law offices in town,” by night he drinks himself into oblivion and tries to write. His wife has her horses, and the house, with its magnificent library is a fabulous labyrinth of childhood fantasies for Henry and Eleonore’s son, also called Henry.

This is a sweeping novel about a man who’s deeply rooted to a region he can’t wait to escape from, and Henry’s ultimate abandonment of his wife and children is the central mystery/emotional dilemma of the plot. I loved the first half of The Barrowfields, with its fine Southern tradition, but the second half with Henry junior’s life becoming the focus, just couldn’t match up to the first half. There’s so much going on here–so much so I wondered how this would read in serial form. The whole build up of the house with its tragic past never really goes anywhere, but hangs like a faded banner over the new residents, and the whole baby sister episode just seemed another layer of melodrama/tragedy that existed for its own sake.

Sprawling, ambitious and flawed this is a novel about fathers and sons. It’s described as a coming-of-age novel, but for me it was more about identity. There are some very fine parts indeed here which are evidence of perhaps future books we might expect from this author, for example, when son Henry, describes how his father has developed a persona to converse with the locals:

He knew how to talk like them, though. He knew how to cock his head just right, and hold his mouth open, and say, “You don’t say” and “Damn,” when he heard a remarkable story, and “Yep” and “Naw” and always “Come with us,” at the end of any conversation with an acquaintance met in an unexpected place. He’d run into someone at the grocery store and listen intently as the man talked. He’d listen with a deep focus, looking dead into the man’s eyes, almost unblinking and without saying much of anything, hunched slightly to be more or less on the same level with the man, without anything much beyond an anthropological interest in the story and the man telling it, and at the end of it he’d offer amusement and say something like, “Well, all right, Junior, I hope you have a good night. I reckon I better get on home.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Lewis Phillip

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor (1917-1994) was born in Trenton, a city in Tennessee that appears in A Summons To Memphis, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel for 1987. There are a few autobiographical features to this story, but they are just trimmings in a slow-moving, eloquent novel about family dynamics and a crisis bad enough for siblings to gather to take action. There’s always a division of opinion when it comes to prize winners, and this also applies to Taylor’s novel, but for anyone out there who’d like to try some Southern American Literature (which is its own sub-genre), this is a great place to start, for while the ‘Southernness’ of the novel may seem foreign or even quaint, most of us will be able to identify with the toxic family dynamic, and perhaps, most importantly, there’s no Southern dialect to wrestle with.

a summons to memphisOur narrator is 49 year-old Phillip Carver, a man who escaped from his Memphis family years before and is now living in New York as a book editor. He was living with a much younger woman, but something has gone wrong with the relationship–nothing easily identifiable, but they’ve separated. Phillip was originally one of four children, but his older brother was killed in WWII–there’s the sense that at worst he got himself killed on purpose, and at best, threw his life away. Now there are the three siblings left–all unmarried, and that’s enough to make the reader sit up and take notice. Phillip keeps in contact with his family mainly through the newsy letters written by his two middle-aged, spinster sisters. Their mother died two years before, and that leaves their geriatric father on his own. Thanks to the letters, Phillip is aware that many elderly widows have been inviting the elderly Mr. Carver for dinner, but things have taken a more serious turn; he’s been seen at local night spots with much younger women, and now, he’s announced his imminent marriage:

The courtship and remarriage of an old widower is always made more difficult when middle-aged children are involved–especially when there are unmarried daughters. This seemed particularly true in the landlocked backwater city of Memphis some forty-odd years ago. At least it is a certainty that remarriage was more difficult for old widowers in Memphis than it was over in Nashville, say, or in Knoxville–or even in Chattanooga, for that matter.

That opening paragraph sets the scene and the tone of the book–along with the theme that life in Memphis is different from life in Nashville–a most important factor once we uncover the Carver family history. Phillip receives two separate phone calls–one from each sister, Betsy and Jo, demanding that he come back home (his summons to Memphis) and assist in thwarting their father’s plans for matrimony.  As Phillip sits in his Manhattan apartment he recalls various similar case histories in which family members banded together and had their elderly parents hauled off into hospitals, dragged into court, or held prisoner on their own plantations away from “any female predator in Memphis.”  All these stories caused Phillip discomfort and embarrassment when he first heard them, and he never expected this to occur in his own family.  Of course, these situations do occur frequently, and then many questions erupt regarding inheritance, mental competence and whether or not the bride to be is a gold-digger. The sense we get from Phillip is an overwhelming embarrassment and shame that his father’s nocturnal activities with a much younger woman have become the source of jokes in the community–mainly thanks to his sisters who hold court at various social events while they recall their father’s attempts to dance and how foolish he looks trying to keep up with people young enough to be his grandchildren.

At this point, A Summons to Memphis may sound like an old familiar story as the adult children gather for an ‘intervention,’ but here’s where the story is different–Phillip goes back into the family’s past, and a complex set of familial relationships are uncovered which reveal exactly why those sisters are unmarried. At one time the Carvers lived in a mansion in Nashville but the father was ruined by a Mr. Lewis Shackleford, who was also, unfortunately, their neighbour. More than forty years earlier, the family moved to Memphis in 1931 for a fresh start, and while the father’s law practice was successful, Phillip’s mother sank into “nearly thirty years of real or imagined invalidism,” and the scars from the Nashville move remained permanently damaging. Now the plump middle-aged sisters run a successful real estate company, and according to Alex Mercer, Phillip’s best friend and a professor at Memphis State University, they are “the laughingstock of Memphis.”

The awful fact was that with figures by no means any longer youthful they often got themselves up in the most extreme fashions that only the most sylphlike and dashing young girls should have worn in any given year–even the most daring fashions, one might say. If, for instance, low backs were favored for evening gowns, their backs would be bare down to the divide in their rather sizable buttocks. Or if particularly low necklines were in vogue, then theirs would plunge between mountainous breasts practically to the navel. If slit skirts were the fashion, then my sisters’ would be vented well above the knees, exposing fleshy thighs which by this time in my sisters’ lives were indeed of no inconsiderable size. Whenever I was at home I had ample opportunity to observe all Alex told me about them was true. They would sometimes come by father’s house before they went out of an evening to ask Father and me to inspect their ridiculous getups. If we were shocked, then they would laugh uproariously. Sometimes I felt their appearance was as big a joke to themselves as to everyone else. But laughingstock or not, I could seldom manage a smile even at the grotesquery of my sisters’ costumes or the awful incongruity of their figures with the alluring postures they assumed. Because I would always see in them still vestiges of the beautiful older sisters of my Nashville boyhood.

That quote gives a strong sense of the author’s languid style. This is a very slow-moving, eloquently constructed novel, and while the title, A Summons to Memphis may indicate that much of the tale takes place there, it’s more a signifier of a family in crisis, and most of the novel is devoted to Phillip’s memories and the telling of his family’s history. This really is a wonderful book, an exquisite example of Southern Literature, with its unhurried, placid style, and exposition of Memphis society. But even more than that, there’s the sense that the Carver family would seem quite strange to an outsider, but Phillip’s narration makes sense of it all, exposing the central paradox at the heart of the family dynamic. The lines of familial responsibility and intervention shift and alter with time. Some family wounds take a long time to heal, and in order for us to mature, we need to forgive, or at the very least, forget:

Forgetting the injustices and seeming injustices which one suffered from one’s parents during childhood and youth must be the major part of any maturing process. I kept repeating this to myself, as though it were a lesson I would at some future time be accountable for. A certain oblivion was what we must undergo in order to become adults and live peacefully with ourselves. Suddenly my sisters seemed no longer a mystery to me. I understood much of their past conduct as never before. They were still, while actually in their mid-fifties, two teenaged girls dressed up and playing roles. It was their way of not facing or accepting the facts of their adult life. They could not forget the old injuries. They wished to keep them alive. They were frozen forever in their roles as injured adolescents.

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Filed under Fiction, Taylor Peter