Thursday, October 25, 2018

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

Nine Nashville gentlemen transpired to the Greenside CafĂ© for lunch outside of Memphis.  A review of the meal and restaurant is available at eatingwithbobandsuzette. The erudite conversations of the afternoon included the following observations.

Ken: – It took him more than 100 pages to leave for Memphis. At the age of 12 I had to move from Cleveland to California. I remember the bad memories I had until I met new friends, so I sympathize with the family’s move.
  I also have had siblings who have tried to take my inheritance, so I connected with that aspect of the book. I learned new words such as “nonce” that means for the time being or temporarily. I agree with Keith that the book was a little long and I was disappointed with the ending, but was interested in how the book illuminated the problem of older parents and grown children trying to communicate.  B+ 

Charlie:  Just another Southern patriarch meddling with his children’s lives. I agree with others that the book was too long. It could have been a good 100 page novella. B

Karl:  While reading the book, I found myself frequently stopping to think about what I'd just read. I couldn't decide if it was a work of pure fiction -- in which case I would have rated the work higher -- or autobiographical. I did some checking and found that like the narrator's father, the author's dad was a big man, played football at Vanderbilt, and was an attorney. He and his wife (who's family had the money) were part of Nashville Society and, in fact, his dad had been Speaker of the Tennessee House. His dad did, indeed, move his family from Nashville to Memphis (though to St Louis in between) when the author was in his early teens. The town of Thornton, TN doesn't exist, but there is a Trenton, TN where the author's dad was born and is about 60 miles from Memphis. So, I view the book more as a fictionalized autobiographical work than as pure fiction. In that vein, I didn't see much to recommend it or the characters in it. i also wasn't a fan of the writing style with page-and-a-half long paragraphs. Even so, I thought that it was well written. Grade:  B-

Tom:  This is an examination of family relationships. He was damaged to some extent when he was taken away from friends in Nashville, especially his girlfriend. The book did not make it clear when the narrator understood the involvement of his father and sisters in the destruction of his relationship with Clara. The ending left me with the theme that his conclusion as it related to family is that you can’t forget or forgive but you can accept. I liked the flow of the prose. I liked the book but was let down by the ending of the story.  A

Keith: comments: His father was a Nationalist. The author had no balls, did not take on his father. Instead, he lived a life of suppressed regrets. The book was loquacious, gassy, and windy. The word I learned was windrows – piles of hay before it is bailed.

  A Summons to Memphis

   The Carver Dysfunctionals … full of regret:
   And Patriarch, George, their Chief Martinet.

   Three Sibs … Philip, Betsy, and Jo
   When each falls in love, Dad says, “Marry? No No!
   Each blames Pop, but never marries again.
   Cowards this trio … Misfits to the end!

   Then when Widower George seeks a Southern Belle’s Hand
   His girls sabotage Dad … “Revenge on you, Old Man”!
   And Taylor our author, writings so trite,
   Windy gloomy, dark … with no light

   Me thinks with all his sunless, sorrow and strife
   It should be re-titled: My Unrequited Life!!
   Yet this “opus” garnered a Pulitzer? … Please!
   Well, I award it a jaded “D”, with ease.

Bob Woods:  Pass. I did not read the book.  To add to your culinary review, be advised that the French (?) Onion Soup was adequate but uninspired. I don't think that the chef is French at all.

Bob Simon:  The book held my attention from start to finish. Since the book was partially autobiographical, I shall be autobiographical to explain my understanding of the plot of the book because the plot connected to my life, which I think explains a bit of the book’s plot, such as why none of the siblings ever married.

  I used to be married to a member of the social registry, which affiliated me with that social community in Fort Worth from 1976 to 1981. In 1981 I moved to Albuquerque. So I share with Philip an understanding of some of the social rules and pressures of that Junior League/Debutante social set. I also had a very narcissistic father, like Philip.  I, like Philip, escaped those two aspects of my life by moving to Albuquerque. If I had stayed, I could see my life circumscribed by pre-ordained social relationships and rules, such as going to parties at the same country clubs with the same 700 persons for my entire life. But I was different. I was born and raised Jewish. I was not born into that social group. In fact, I was particularly sensitive to the prejudices and barriers ingrained into social registry society based upon my father’s experience as a young man.

  My father was an NCAA letterman on the TCU golf team in 1929. As a member of the TCU golf team, he played at all the country clubs in Fort Worth and many around the State of Texas. But when he graduated from TCU he was refused admission to the same country clubs he had previously played at as a student athlete because he was Jewish. The year the first Jewish family was admitted to membership in a country club in Fort Worth was 1960. I tell you this to make you aware that there are rules, barriers, and social pressures one faces from simply being born into social registry society. For example, my children are in the Social Register, but I am not. So, I understand why Taylor moved to New York and lived with a Jewish woman. He was escaping the life he was born into, just as I, and many others who chose not to accept that social group’s limitations and benefits, did.

  I also understand why Philip did not stand up to his father. Where Keith suggests Philip had no balls, I see that Philip’s decision to acquiesce to their summons was because he wanted to continue his relationship with his family, therefore he could not attack their fixed social rules, perhaps because opposing his family’s rules of their society would have been fruitless and counterproductive.  Opposing his family’s social rules would be unlikely to change them, especially as fixed in his Father’s mind, and opposing his family’s social rules would probably have ostracized him from his father and family. Therefore, Philip adopted the historically proven admonition, “Go along to get along.” Like Jim Hightower said when explaining his decision to move back to Texas, “You don’t move back to Texas because you like the people, but because it is comfortable to live where you were raised and because you understand the sons-abitches.”

   In law a summons is a court order to appear or respond to a court action. The title Summons to Memphis perfectly explains that Philip was ordered to appear in Memphis, by the rules of the family and society he was born into, not by choice.

  A word about Alex. Alex was a person not born into Philip’s social society but who yearned to be associated with it. He sucked up to George and the sisters, to feel a sense of entitlement and association that was really not there. That entitlement can only be gained by birth or marriage (that may be the unspoken real reason why each of the marriages was opposed; because each of the proposed spouses was deemed to not be a good fit in that society or was not a member of that society).

  I am reminded of the scene in Downton Abbey that explains this point so well. The daughter, Lady Mary Crawley, is invited to dinner in a posh restaurant in London by a friend after the death of her husband. When a couple arrives at the large table of young persons, a young woman is introduced to Mary by saying, “You know Amelia (or some such name)?”  Mary responds, “Oh, yes, we came out together.” Those four words “We came out together” tells you everything you need to know. Mary knew Amelia’s family history and accepted Amelia as being of her social class and as a social equal.

  If this sounds like I am asserting the rules of the social registry society, I am. I just want to explain my understanding of how Alex fit into the book’s plot and perhaps a possible reason why all the proposed marriages faltered. Alex’s character’s function in the book was to be the Greek Chorus, to report on what was happening in Philip’s family while not in Philip’s presence. So, in summary it was a well written book that held my attention.  A

Jack:  At the end Philip came to terms with his feelings and with the help of his NYC girlfriend, Holly, gained peace of mind. Taylor’s objectivity – all fiction is autobiographical followed in his father’s footsteps from revenge against those who wronged you to getting past it. I saw Philip’s leaving Nashville as a loss of place, friendships and family. Taylor did a good job in making me think about one’s relationships with family, siblings and one’s father. Philip was uprooted from his school and friends when young. The book reinforced the role place plays in our lives, especially between Nashville and Memphis. Eudora Welty wrote similarly about coming to terms with family. Laurel’s emotional journey in The Optimist's Daughter comes to mind. Solid A

Rob:  I liked the last four chapters. The reconciliation of George with Shackleford was a nice touch. It was different from my life. No one in my family opposed my second marriage. This book made me think about a lot of things. This was Taylor’s first novel. He tells a good story intelligently. Solid A

and from far outside of Memphis:
I was summoned to San Diego for a collegiate classmate celebration and a clash with Notre Dame.  My comments:

Prof. Bousek relived "Darktown Strutters Ball" in his memoir, and I found myself with another old classic for Peter Taylor: "You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want to Do It)." Only my Book Club discipline kept me reading past 50 pages, but then it all started to come together. This book was a well crafted memoir, very easy to accept and believe. The opening line is a classic, and the next four chapters open as pure memoirs.  I love the way the full name Lewis Shackleford was used throughout to maintain a strong theme. The father was a strong character, and all the main characters were well presented, fully developed, and captivating in their own way.  However ... however ... this love affair could not last.  Enough of these conniving sisters already.  B-
   -  Mike