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Telling Irony: Peter Taylor’s Later Stories

ISSUE:  Summer 1991

One of the principal marks of greatness in Peter Taylor’s later stories is his deliberate wrestling with the irony that mediates our every attempt to make sense of our lives. As he addresses it, a tension arises between lived experience and the act of creating a story, giving shape and therefore meaning to that experience. Stories such as “In the Miro District” and “The Old Forest” and the novel A Summons to Memphis, all published in the 1970’s and 80’s, are marked by a rich narrative irony unlike anything Taylor has used before. This particular form of irony represents the narrator’s uncertainty about the significance of the story he is telling—a tale whose final shape and meaning he seeks precisely through the act of translating experience, and memory, into language. The irony, in other words, mediates the relation between the teller and the tale; it creates the tension that holds teller and tale, language and meaning, in juxtaposition.

Taylor further employs this narrative irony to set the reader at a critical distance from the events and characters, a distance that approximates the narrator’s own. Rather than being caught up in the chronological sweep and suspense of events as in a traditional narrative, we are reminded time and again of the gap between story and meaning, and our role is parallel to the narrator’s. We come to share in the odd detective game: not to discover what happened—something we know largely (though not entirely) from the start—but why it happened and with what significance. By comparing “In the Miro District” with the earlier “Dean of Men,” a story rich with ironies but of a fundamentally different kind, we will gain a better perspective on Taylor’s achievement.

The beginning of “In the Miro District,” with its quiet and wistful tone, suggests the narrator’s yearning to make sense of events long past:

What I most often think about when I am lying awake in the night, or when I am taking a long automobile trip alone, is my two parents and my maternal grandfather. (“In the Miro District,” In the Miro District and Other Stories, Knopf, 1977)

This turning and returning in the narrator’s mind of distant memories, characters, and scenes is mirrored in the structure he generates for the tale; he shuffles the chronological order of events throughout. Indeed, for the reader there is precious little mystery to the events of the denouement. On the story’s second page we are given our first glimpse: “What actually happened was that. . . .” During a distant summer, we are told, when the narrator was struggling to pass the threshold of adolescence into manhood—and rebelling against the figure of authority, his grandfather, who seemed to balk him at every gesture—that grandfather, Major Manley, discovered his grandson’s “girl” hiding naked in a wardrobe.

Such jumping the gun in and of itself is not unusual to Taylor’s later fiction, of course. As we shall see, he uses similar strategies in the earlier “Dean of Men.” By anticipating events, by giving away what we expect to learn only in due course, he focuses attention, as I have already noted, not on what happened but on why. The chronological course of events is violated; we learn bits and pieces out of turn. Taylor, in other words, creates an unusually potent disjunction between what we can call “history”—the chronological track of events, the order in which things happened—and “discourse”—the method and order in which the narrator shapes the story and presents those events to his audience.

In such later works as “In the Miro District,” however, this characteristic technique achieves a new richness and even justification. For the interplay between “history” and “discourse” also reflects the action of the narrator’s own imagination as he repeatedly, all but obsessively, scours the same memories, seeking to discover the meaning of an experience long past. For the why has eluded him as well. He may reveal early on Major Manley’s discovery of the “nice” girl stashed in the wardrobe, and that this sundered the old man from his grandson, the narrator, forever. But what’s at stake in the narrative is the recognition that what happened will not suffice, that the challenge is to discover the significance of events and why, rather than how, one has led so disastrously to another.

Inevitably, when the disjunction between “history” and “discourse” is this profound, a potent tension arises between them, reflecting the narrator’s own uncertainty. That tension, therefore, is a reflection of the narrative irony that, to define it once more, mediates the relation of the teller to the tale. The tension and the irony are products of the narrator’s anguish or bafflement, his “complications of feeling.” In an important sense, the tale becomes ultimately successful only if this narrative irony collapses at the end, if the distinction between history and discourse disappears, and if the narrator and reader together have accomplished, at least partially, at least briefly, their task of understanding.


To make clearer the distinction between the narrative irony of Taylor’s later stories and some of the many other forms of irony in his earlier fiction, it is helpful to examine “Dean of Men,” first published in The Virginia Quarterly Review in 1969 and chosen as the opening work of The Collected Stories.

The narrator, dean at a small college, is writing a letter to his son, a long-haired young man of the sixties. The actual impulse behind the letter is mean-spirited, though we may not recognize that at once. The dean wants to demonstrate the folly of his son’s idealistic hopes for the future: “I must try to warn you that I don’t think even your wonderful generation will succeed in going very far along the road you are on.” (“Dean of Men,” in The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969). For were the son and his generation to succeed, they would perforce escape from the past and capture a freedom of action and possibility. This thought the dean cannot bear because of his own past failures. And so, as a weapon against his son, he recounts a family tale, juxtaposing and anticipating events outside of a strictly historical pattern (Taylor again deliberately interweaving history and discourse), revealing not simply the profound bonds between generations but a pattern of behavior or, as the dean all but imagines it, a curse along the male line of his family.

The dean’s grandfather, father, and he himself all once led lives of promise and early achievement in the public worlds of politics, business, or the academy. Yet each of these men, made vulnerable by (apparent) idealism and love (and, we come to suspect, by a yearning for stasis and even martyrdom), has succumbed to manipulation and betrayal by male friends.

Grandfather, a politician of “beautiful oratory” rather than the daring and substance of his own forebears, is betrayed by younger political scoundrels and withdraws to the feminine bosom of his family, an embittered and quarrelsome old man. In reaction, the “guiding principle” of his son, the narrator’s father, is “that he must at all costs avoid the terrible pitfall of politics.” Yet as a successful businessman he too eventually falls prey to the wiles of a man, Lewis Barksdale, whose friendship he trusted. (Another version of this latter story is central to Taylor’s novel A Summons to Memphis.)

And the narrator of “Dean of Men,” himself shunning both politics and business, has withdrawn almost before the fact to the petty stage of a college campus where he repeats the disaster, egged on by the machinations of young colleagues, erstwhile friends. “With their bright, intelligent eyes, with their pipes and tweed jackets, and with a neatly trimmed mustache or two among them, they gave one a feeling that here were men one would gladly and proudly be associated with. . . .” Of course, driven by their own fears, timidity, regrets, these men betray him in the paltry politics of who on the faculty totem pole is to receive a particular house on the campus. For this apparent trifle the narrator resigns and begins a more profound and telling flight away from the human responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood. His deanship, at another college, becomes his impregnable bastion of self-deceit and self-righteousness.

By the end of the tale the narrator has revealed himself to be a distorted creature worthy of a Browning monologue, unwilling to be loved, supported, or consoled, insisting on acting out his trivial tragedy with an absurd willfulness. Yet, with serene blindness, he claims in this letter to his son that his has been a “happy, active life.” Of course, he admits, “one sacrifices something.” But the trade, the sacrifice has been worth it. Of this he is certain. And that certainty is crucial.

Not until the lull following his own betrayal by colleagues on the faculty have the pieces of the intergenerational puzzle first fallen together in the Dean’s mind. His father’s behavior, his grandfather’s, his own, “suddenly now became very easy for me to understand.” This sense of understanding is unshakable. It bears the heavy mark of fate and self-justification, and it seems to drive him toward the self-immolation of smug burlesque.

What emerges, as we discover that progression from sensitive writer and teacher to curmudgeonly self-righteous dean, then, is not a quicksilver narrative irony, representing a search for answers in the shaping of a story, as in “In the Miro District,” but what we may recognize as a form of a more stable dramatic irony. Again, as in a Browning monologue, the attentive reader comes to perceive more than the narrator who is so sure of his story, who senses no detachment from the truth he intends to impart. In “Dean of Men” it is the reader’s responsibility to judge the judge and to see him for what he is.


In an important sense, “In the Miro District” has two narrators: the boy, now grown, and his grandfather, Major Manley, who moves from telling stories of his escape from nightriders to becoming, not unlike the narrator of “Dean of Men,” something of a caricature of himself, dressed in a black suit and string tie, reciting stories of valor from the War between the States.

Despite the crucial differences between them, these two narrators engage in very much the same task. They struggle to make sense of their experiences through the shaping power of story. For Major Manley this takes on a ritual quality. For decades he reveals his personal testimony to men sitting late at night in a hunting lodge and after strong drink. The act is far more than entertainment; Major Manley is something of an Ancient Mariner, forced by his own nature to repeat tales that both reveal and reinforce the way he makes sense of the world.

Years before—yet long after the war—Major Manley, a prominent lawyer, was kidnapped from his bed at gun-point. Witness to the torture and murder of his best friend, refugee in a primeval swamp where he wandered and hid for ten days, he glimpsed a potent vision of reality around which he has structured a code of living.

And I myself [says his grandson] heard him speak of those hallucinations. . .as though they were real events he had experienced and heard him say that his visions of the earthquake were like a glimpse into the eternal chaos we live in, a glimpse no man should be permitted, and that after that, all of his war experiences seemed small and insignificant matters. . . .

The traditional codes of social behavior, how one behaves as a proper Southern gentleman, for example, assume a vital new quality for Major Manley: more than merely a matter of appearance and good manners, they provide a framework for keeping that “eternal chaos” hidden and in check, making civilized life possible.

The underlying question of all action for Major Manley— and we may say for Peter Taylor throughout his work—is what will suffice to hold the social world together. Alan Williamson, in Shenandoah, [30, No. 1 (1978), 71—84], has argued that Eros is the binding force in Taylor’s stories, “In the Miro District” a particular case in point. Jane Barnes Casey, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, [54 (1978), 213—30], rather along the same lines we spy in Major Manley, suggests that what holds the world together in Taylor’s stories is reason: characters become aware of threatening chaos within themselves and without, and of how necessary custom is to provide shape and shelter, arbitrary though custom may be.

But what quite literally holds the world together for Major Manley (a world already largely consigned to the past by others), is the act of telling his stories. They shape, they renew, they endure when all about him has been reduced to the quotidian norms of latter-day Nashville. The story of his experience with the nightriders, therefore, represents a personal history, a claim to identity. This sets him apart from the more conventional Civil War tales of other men his age, a conventionality his children—the parents of the narrator— most desire. His insistent cling to the story he chooses is a testament not to past valor so much as to his own continuing immersion in life.

As a boy, the narrator of “In the Miro District” believed that what separated him from his grandfather was a radical chasm between generations, of time and belief as much as of sensibility:

Perhaps I felt that day that it was my parents, somehow, who would forever be a wall between us, and that once any people turned away from what he was, as they had done, then that—whatever it was he was—was lost to them and to their children and their children’s children forever.

Of course, we grow increasingly aware of the many bonds and parallels between the man and boy, that they are engaged in much the same struggle to define themselves, that this is, in fact, a story about two comings of age: the boy from dependence into maturity even as his grandfather desperately resists the slide from mature defiant independence into the dependence of old age. Yet what may be the clearest mark that the two do indeed belong to different worlds is the nature of the stories they tell, one marked by a profound narrative irony—radical doubt about the story he tells—the other not.

Major Manley, like the dean of men, is certain of both his story and its meaning. He is certain even of the truth that hallucinations in the swamp have revealed about the nature of the world. In an important sense, the old man is an absolutely reliable narrator. Whether or not his tales present an objective historical truth that an audience can accept without reservation, no distance or self-consciousness—no narrative irony—separates him from his story, at least as far as we can tell. Its truth lies in his unwavering belief, and is the foundation to his character.

Small wonder, then, that one of the most significant ways in which the boy should seek to demarcate the boundaries between them is to throw the same stories back in the old man’s face:

I had the sensation of retching or of actually vomiting, not the whiskey I had in my stomach but all the words about the nightriders I had ever had from him and had not known how to digest—words I had not ever wanted to hear. . . . I knew only that this was the beginning of my freedom from him.

In order to create himself, his own story, he tugs free of his grandfather’s tales that have weighed on him like parables of his own inadequacy.

The distance he stakes out brings with it a new self-consciousness. This maturity is not an end in itself, however. The narrator, for better or worse a creature of the modern world, isn’t certain of the tale he tells. He must establish a distance from it, just as he has from his grandfather, in order to make sense. Pulling back in order to understand is the tension at the heart of the narrative irony in this story.

And of course the reader is engaged in a similar task: pulling back from the narrative in order to understand. We must disentangle history from discourse in hopes of resolving the narrative irony so that we may have some sense of what happened, of why, and of the haunting significance for the narrator.

Typically, the boy’s “vomiting” up of the old man’s tales results in a failure of understanding between them. He intends this as a desperate, almost uncontrollable mockery; his grandfather senses only a test of wills and, with a laugh, wins that test. “[W]hat his wicked smile and the light in his eyes spoke of was a victory he was reveling in at that present moment.”

Hearing his grandson spew up the tales is a reminder to the old man of a larger victory; that by insisting on the primacy of the stories of the nightriders rather than of the Civil War, Major Manley has maintained his independence. But for the boy, chanting his grandfather’s stories, even in mockery, is testament to his own inability to stand free of those stories as yet.

A second confrontation has much the same culmination: a victory for Major Manley. Again he arrives “unheralded and unannounced,” and discovers that his grandson has brought two male friends and three girls home while his parents are away. Major Manley, moving from room to room, lands several ceremonial whacks of his cane to usher the guests on their way. But once the girls appear from their rooms, Major Manley assumes a different tone, one less condescending perhaps than that of the boys they have slept with. And the girls recognize this at once. They call goodbye to the old man rather than to the narrator, who concedes that:

when he spoke with such composure and assurance to those girls in my parents’ living room, I felt that there was nothing in the world he didn’t know and hadn’t been through.

The third incident that same summer is more telling. As we have been forewarned, Major Manley discovers the narrator’s girlfriend, a “nice” girl, stashed away in a wardrobe. Our anticipation doesn’t mute the drama of the moment, but we, like the narrator as he gazes back on the scene, have achieved a certain critical detachment; we too are struggling to understand the significance of the action, to make sense of the old man’s reaction.

The resonance of the scene surely is oedipal. For by this point we can acknowledge that Major Manley is more a father to the boy than is the pale, nameless creature of an intervening generation whose greatest trial is a prostate problem. If all boys feel it difficult to live up to the standard of their fathers, how much more so of a father with the courage, the glory, the stories of Biblical certainty and apocalyptic echo of a Major Manley. The challenge to the boy is suffocating; his individuality depends not on measuring up to this father— something he cannot do—but on toppling him.

But I knew that there was yet something I could do that would show him how different we were and that until I had made him grasp that, I would not begin to discover what, since I wasn’t and couldn’t be like him, I was like. Or if, merely as a result of being born when I was and where I was, at the very tail end of something, I was like nothing else at all, only incomparably without a character of my own.

The action is flagrant: taking a “forbidden” girl into the room Major Manley uses when he visits the city (and thoroughly despoiling the bed with food, books, and other detritus); hiding her naked in the wardrobe where Major Manley, disbelieving the boy’s declaration of innocence, discovers her. Stunned, the old man leaves the house and gives up the fight, within hours appearing before his own children and their conventional friends at a summer oasis as that Colonel Sanders-like caricature. The boy has broken free; he has experienced love and freedom; he has won.

But victory, naturally enough, is problematic. Questions remain, and these will haunt the boy. Why did the symbolic “killing” of the grandfather extend so far into the real world? If by the struggle the boy established his own identity, why did it spell such ignominious defeat for the old man? Soon Major Manley, having abandoned the stories of the nightriders, costumed appropriately as he recites tales from the Civil War, will fail even to recognize his grandson sitting among other young people of a new, alien age.

The questions are never fully answered for the narrator or for the reader, who has come to share in the detective work. Certainly, those enduring questions are given shape and, therefore, meaning by the tale—and that is much. But the narrator’s efforts can never be entirely fulfilled. The irony separating him from the tale, from his grandfather, from certainty, never completely collapses. Even the mystery of why this boyhood experience should remain so deeply troubling decades later is never fully answered. Just as Major Manley once felt compelled like an Ancient Mariner to repeat the tale of the nightriders, the narrator, when he is “lying awake in the night” or “taking a long automobile trip alone,” returns to this story and seeks, through the telling, to become as reliable as the old man.


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