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BOOK REVIEW / The mystery man: 'The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court' - Peter Taylor: Chatto & Windus, 14.99

Chesterton once remarked that nearly every major writer eventually produces a book whose title reflects his assumptions or expectations of life. Perhaps the closest Peter Taylor has come to meeting this prescription, during the course of a long and distinguished career is in his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Summons To Memphis (1987). At the very least this conveys something of the solidity of the environment in which he deals - the American South.

Taylor's characters are never able to flee their origins. Like the narrator of the present collection's title story, their orbit may extend to Washington or even to military service overseas, but a moment's thought is capable of tugging them back, leaving them suspended in a sort of uneasy limbo where the memory of a vanished past is usually a great deal more real than the imperfect present.

This kind of rootedness, an absorption in milieux that can occasionally verge on the claustrophobic, goes some way to defining Taylor's relation to the mainstream of modern American writing. His work is neither urban nor fragmentary. It is provincial and seamless: an endless web of psychological reflection hedged around with what at first looks like deliberate vagueness but which is actually a refusal to be drawn. He is an example of that odd kind of writer, the man for whom the present has largely ceased to matter, except as a high point on a trajectory set in motion years before.

Taylor's principal theme, then, is the past, but it is a particular kind of past, densely realised, consoling and corrosive by turns, intimately bound up with the complexities of family life, without finite boundaries and mostly based on speculation and possibility. More daunting still, it is a past which is capable of reinventing or extending itself in ways which are highly disagreeable to its characters' assumptions about human development. In 'Cousin Aubrey', for example, an absent relative is transformed, through scraps of hearsay, into a figure of surprising consequence. The reverberations of this irrevocably change the narrator's view of the family and time - a much more serious thing.

Occasionally, the past grips so tightly that there is a way in which the idea of family extends to take in groups of unrelated characters, united only by geography. One of the best and most typical pieces in The Oracle At Stoneleigh Court concerns a collection of visitors to a hospital waiting room in Memphis. Two or three mornings' conversation has established that they all come from the same remote part of Arkansas, but they are unable to act upon this useful information. Finally, they are left with the awareness that 'a general knowledge had been repressed'.

It would be easy for stories like this to descend into stylised deadness - the wisteria over the porch, the chauvinism over the dinner table - but Taylor's evocations of lost time have a peculiar vitality. Pieces like the title story or 'The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs' turn on the ability of the past to disturb present serenity, leaving the onlookers conscious that they have been the victims of a dreadful determinism whose horror lies in the fact that it is so imperfectly or belatedly glimpsed. The faint hint of the numinous, always a feature of Taylor's earlier work, here becomes its distinguishing mark. 'The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs' is an eerie tale of supernatural revenge; 'Demons' describes a small boy who hears ominous voices; 'The Real Ghost' is a ghost story in the Jamesian (Henry rather than M R) sense.

Yet these special effects rarely obtrude, principally because of the matter-of-factness with which they are introduced. One accepts the prophesied ruin of the narrator's uncle in 'Demons' in the same way that one accepts the close-knit family circle, the hoof-marks on the polished floors and the warm scent of privilege.

Taylor is not usually as explicit as this. In general, he brings off his best touches by concentrating on tiny incidents which, however narrowly, change the alignment of his characters' lives. In 'At The Art Theater', for instance, a young woman's momentary confusion over the identity of her escort is enough to exert a profound influence over her future life with the fiance who becomes her husband: 'Each had the transitory feeling of wishing to hold on to something that was lost forever.' In 'The End of Play', a small boy's mimicry of the political convention manages to illuminate both his relationship with his father and the wider impact of the Depression on family life.

These are not new techniques - one finds something very like them in Chekhov - but the effect of Taylor's saturated style, the characteristic feeling you get in his work of objects hanging eternally out of reach, is extraordinarily potent. The homespun characters of 'The Waiting Room', in which an intense young man talks with feeling about his grandfather without knowing that the old man is dead, have a tremendous definition: they are individuals, not types, their quiddities established with a few scraps of broken dialogue.

Writing about the old-style American South in this way - if one wanted an adjective for Taylor's approach it would perhaps be 'patrician' - carries its own built-in quota of disparagement. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, has taken Taylor to task for his 'disappointingly conservative' evaluation of the Upper South. 'Clearly racist' assumptions by his genteel white characters are never called into question, and the cruelty of a society which condemns a woman to witch status is never exposed. 'One is invited to celebrate these people,' Carol Oates concludes, 'simply because they exist.'

But has fiction ever invited its readers to do anything else? Obviously it is possible to rewrite the story of Noah with dire warnings about the consequences of intoxication or improve Trollope's hunting passages with one eye on the League Against Cruel Sports, but you despair over the likely outcome. Taylor's coloured characters, his amiable cooks and chauffeurs, might be simply walk-ons, but he is writing about a white society which, however regrettably, took little interest in them. To introduce the race question would be to fake history to serve retrospective ideological ends.

Inevitably, praise of this sort may seem to reduce Taylor to the status of a social historian, or at best the anatomist of a morally flawed and superannuated elite. In fact his work is characterised by a keen respect for what might be called the processes of ordinary life. He is aware that a great deal of life consists of this reiterated, speculative brooding, a subjunctive existence whose tentative conclusions are as near as most people get to an appreciation of what that life entails. A sentence in 'Demons', in which the narrator reflects on the 'mystery' of his visitants, emphasises this point: such a mystery becomes, finally, a kind of knowledge. It instructs and informs us about the arbitrary nature of most of the things we have to learn in order to walk the world as adults. To say that sentiments of this kind are diametrically opposed to a modern artistic elite that holds most conventional life in contempt would perhaps be a false opposition, but despite its innate conservatism Taylor's fiction is both humane and - if the word has any meaning nowadays - democratic.

(Photograph omitted)