Wednesday, September 19, 2012

TAFT by Ann Patchett

John Nickel manages a bar on Beale Street in Memphis and has a thing for his new waitress, Fay Taft.  There are two big problems:  1) She's a teenager, and  2) She's white and he's black.  The race difference wouldn't seem to be that big a deal these days, even in Memphis (my hometown).  However, Fay, her troubled brother Carl, and Fay's mother are living with old-money relatives, and John knows that they would take a dim view of an older black boyfriend who runs a bar.  These various issues seem only to intensify the attraction between the two, but in some ways John is also father figure to both Fay and Carl, whose father has recently died, leaving the family destitute and forced to move from the hills of East Tennessee to live with the aforementioned relatives.  I couldn't quite grasp what it is about Fay and Carl that motivates John to protect them in ways that are not healthy for any of the parties involved.  One possible clue is the fact that John himself is father to 9-year-old Franklin, who now lives in Miami with his mother, Marion, whom John never married.  This is a sticking point with both parties, as she was ready to marry when he wasn't and vice versa.  Now he has developed a friendly relationship with her parents, still in Memphis, and a possibly more-than-friendly relationship with her sister Ruth.  Add to these Wallace, Cyndi, and Rose, who all work in the bar, and you have a nice ensemble of characters to keep the pot boiling.  The author, from Nashville herself, nails the dichotomy, or trichotomy, really, that is the state of Tennessee, with the mountain people at one end and the delta people at the other, and the less extreme valley people in the middle.  I've read that the author thinks that the title of this novel hurts its market potential, and I think she's right about that.  It's a shame this novel hasn't come to the attention of more readers.

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