Saturday, January 1, 2011

Entry 26: "A Summons to Memphis" by Peter Taylor (1987)

I am thirty novels into this Pulitzer Project and one theme that has arisen, and is winding its way through most of these novels so far, is  one of familial relationships and reconciliations, and the idea of going home. I'm starting to notice this theme as kind of a staple of Pulitzer-winning novels, such as in The Shipping News, The Keepers of the House, Now In November, The Good Earth, The Optimist's Daughter, A Death In the Family, American Pastoral, and Ironweed, just to name a few.

It seems to me that homecomings are a part of the stitching in the American quilt, as it were. For evidence of this, one need look no further than the great American institution that is High School. The high school football homecoming game and accompanying dance are just about as Americana as warm apple pie on Thanksgiving Day. Students and alumni gather together to cheer on their alma mater and later dance the night away, crowning the homecoming king and queen. There are even parades to celebrate; the king and queen sitting atop a giant float, waving to the gathering crowds as the parade winds its way down Main Street in Small Town, Anywhere. And let us not forget high school reunions, where ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty years later, alumni will get together once again to catch up on each others' lives and reminisce about "the old days."

High school reunions, holiday gatherings, family reunions—yes, "homecoming" is a thread that ties Americans together.

This could be a reason the Pulitzer committee is so eager to award novels that expound on the theme. This was certainly the case in 1987, when Peter Taylor won for his novel, A Summons to Memphis.


Taylor sets up his story in an interesting way—the reader is originally led to believe that the central conflict of the story is that Philip Carver's father is getting married to the dismay of his children, so Philip must travel to Memphis to confront his father. This conflict is set up in the very first chapter: Philip receives two phone calls from his sisters on a Sunday night while at his home in Manhattan, and they beg him to return to Memphis to help sort the situation out. However, that is nearly the last the reader hears of that conflict for the next eight or so chapters. This conflict merely serves as bookends for Taylor's narrative.

And, in Taylor's narrative, the true central conflict emerges. This is not a story about three middle-aged children attempting to convince their senior father out of marriage—it's everything in between that makes up the real story. While contemplating what he should do about his father, Philip spends the next several chapters revealing his family's past to the reader—from their roots in Nashville, to their move to Memphis, to his childhood friends, to his parents' relationship, to his mother's passing, to his father's "stepping out," to his sisters' becoming old spinsters, to his brother's death, to his moving to Manhattan, Carver regales the reader with tales about his life. These tales are meant to inform the reader of his fractured and, oftentimes, fractious relationship with his family—most notably, his father.

The real conflict of this novel is Carver's internal struggle with leaving his past behind for good, or attempting to repair his relationship with his father.


I recently had an internal struggle very similar to Philip Carver's.

Up until this past Christmas Day, I hadn't seen or even spoken to my grandparents in nearly six years. There was a big to-do in my mother's side of the family and split us in half. This feud has been going on ever since between my mother and her parents. Unfortunately, being her son, I was sort of resigned to take her side in the issue (though I felt and still feel that my grandparents were in the wrong).

Regardless, this Christmas I decided to extend the proverbial olive branch and drove over to my grandparents' home. Without even notifying them of my visit. I just showed up. I had been reminiscing a lot lately over my family's former self—the get-togethers and parties we used to have, the all-night music sessions. All of these memories came to a head when I wrote a personal essay about my grandmother's father, "Pa," a couple weeks ago entitled "Guitar Lessons."

So I went to their home, surprising myself that I remembered how to get there so perfectly considering I hadn't been there in almost ten years. Nothing had changed, the house and neighborhood looked exactly the way I remembered it. I sat in my car, in their driveway, for about 20 minutes, chain-smoking American Spirits, and rehearsing lines; figuring out ways to conduct my behavior in every possible scenario I could imagine. As it turned out, all my fretting was for nought.

My cousin, Katherine, greeted me at the door and I walked in, kicked the snow off my shoes and removed my coat and scarf. Made my way into the living room to find my grandparents where I remembered them—in their chairs by the reading lamp against the back wall. They looked up from their books and with an almost befuddled look on both of their faces, they both said, "Andrew. Hi there." I grinned a sheepish grin, suddenly realizing that I was happy to see both of them, and replied, simply, "Hi."

The next couple hours were a blur. It was as if nothing had ever happened between us. It was as if the last six years had been totally normal. My cousins, aunt, grandparents, and I sat around the kitchen table talking and laughing well into the wee hours of the morning. When everyone decided it was time for bed, my grandfather came out of his bedroom with a pair of pajamas and some blankets for me, told me he wanted me to spend the night since the roads were so awful. I obliged. As I was about to lay down on the sofa, he came into the living room and said, "Andrew. Come here." I followed him into the kitchen and he pulled out a chair for me. "Sit down. There," he said, pointing. Again, I obliged. "Are you hungry? I'll make you some dinner." It was two in the morning, but he made a ham sandwich, scooped some potato salad onto a plate and poured a glass of ginger ale for me. I thanked him and he sat down across from me, and talked and talked and talked for almost an hour straight about our family coming to Chicago from Ireland—the Brownes, the O'Dohertys, and the Flavins. He talked about being an eight year old Irish American kid, skipping Sunday Mass and heading to his aunt's house to play cards for two hours instead. He talked about shooting BB guns in his neighbor's backyard. How his uncle was the only person he'd ever known who wore a suit and tie at all times, even while mowing the lawn: "A true gentleman," he said. Then, at 3am, he arose, hugged me and said, "I'm glad you could make it here tonight Andrew. I thought I might never see you again." He began to get a little choked up, excused himself, and while walking to his bedroom said, "Feel free to help yourself to the ginger ale. We have plenty. Goodnight."

And when I fell asleep that night, I fell asleep content. Because I knew that our fences had finally been mended.

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