BOOK REVIEW / Cousin Aubrey's secret lives: In the Tennessee Country - Peter Taylor: Chatto & Windus, pounds 14.99: D J Taylor on an absorbing tale from Tennessee

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
UNLIKE their British counterparts, who are often considered parochial, American regional novelists are regularly acclaimed for using tiny locales to illuminate grand truths. Peter Taylor, whose imagination has, in the course of a long literary career, scarcely left the boundaries of a single US state, offers a fine example of this tendency. In The Tennessee Country - an expanded version of the story 'Cousin Aubrey' which appeared in his last collection, The Oracle At Stoneleigh Court - is the quintessence of his oblique, discriminating and increasingly fabulous vision of the Southern American past.

The novel is narrated by an elderly art historian named Nathan Longfort, and it begins with his childhood memory of a legendary train-ride in which the body of his senator grandfather is brought back from Washington to his home state. Punctuated by all manner of incidental setbacks and hold-ups, the journey is also remarkable for the presence of a mysterious relative, the illegitimate son of the senator's brother, Cousin Aubrey, who is held in some contempt by the other members of the family, but redeems himself slightly by his prompt attentions to Nathan's mother during a fainting fit, and then, fetched up in Knoxville for the internment, caps his performance by vanishing into thin air.

In choosing to disappear in this way, Cousin Aubrey immediately becomes part of a Tennessee tradition: the state, Nathan assures us, is full of stories of men who 'went away', some never to return, others to be rediscovered in bizarre cirumstances decades later. Like them, Aubrey's absence becomes a source of enduring mystery and contemplation, hanging over Nathan's childhood and, by the onset of his mature years, reaching maniacal proportions. Obsessed by his cousin, he affects to see him at family funerals, transforms him into a titanic mythical figure, and devotes much of his adult life to tracking him down: 'The simple knowledge of what his ultimate fate was became an end in itself.'

Cousin Aubrey's exact symbolic properties hang out of reach for a time while some more family history gets recounted. Nathan's original aim of becoming a painter is diverted on to the more lucrative, if faintly disappointing, path of art history. His widowed mother, with whom he conducts an odd, intense relationship, seems similarly unfulfilled and soothes her frustrations by declaiming fusty dramatic monologues at family parties, much to her son's embarrassment. Meanwhile, a sheaf of evidence, painstaking assembled through the succeeding years, allows for Aubrey's complete reinvention as an elegant, patrician figure, conspicuously at large in the salons of Europe and elsewhere. This picture is given an extra twist by old Mrs Longfort's revelation, made shortly before her death, that she and Aubrey had a brief, juvenile love affair.

Finally Nathan's son Braxton discovers the elderly Aubrey by chance in Washington. Here something of Taylor's design begins to reveal itself. Of all the members of the family, Braxton has been the least indulgent of his father's painstaking researches into 'some such banal family affairs'. Equally significant, perhaps, is Braxton's status as a bona fide artist. Unlike his father he really can paint. There is a further irony in Aubrey's reaction to being discovered . Insolvent and hospitalised, he is willing enough to unearth family history with Nathan, but chooses marriage to an elderly admirer in preference to financial help. Braxton, meanwhile, quits town, leaving Nathan and his wife to ponder the lessons of history: 'no matter how far away Brax went or whether our separation was quantitative or qualitative, we should not try to stop him'.

Nathan is a reserved, impenetrable figure, a touch Pooterish in his account of Braxton's Left Bank affectations ('it is really quite striking the way he gets himself up'), and occasionally revealing the fractures of his childhood. Elsewhere, a hint of the numinous, always observable in Taylor's later work, becomes even more sharply apparent. Nathan regards Aubrey as resembling 'some ghost from an earlier generation'. The latter's funeral appearances are those of a spectral revenant, uncorroborated by onlookers. Travelling to Ohio to be interviewed for his final academic post and arriving at a local guest house, Nathan is startled by the proprietress's similarity to what he imagines will be his wife's appearance in later life. Braxton's first encounter with his elderly relative is the result of apparent telepathy. There are many touches of this sort, and the effect is to bring past and present together in a shadowy and infinitely elusive whole. Curiously, Taylor has hardly any reputation in this country - he is one of those writers whom no amount of praise will ever propel into the public consciousness - but it seems a safe bet that the autumn will yield up few more absorbing novels.