Taft, by Ann Patchett

This early 1994 novel by Patchett is interesting, daring, and not a little confusing. It’s interesting because of its cast of characters, most of them black. The narrator is John Nickel, an ex-drummer who now manages a bar in a black neighborhood in Memphis. It is also interesting because of his personal relationships, as well as among those who work in the bar. But it is even more interesting because of Nickel himself as narrator. From the very first page, he becomes real. His narration, in fact, reminded me of the narrators in many private-eye novels. He is very direct, very open and down-to-earth, from the very first sentence: “A girl walked into the bar.”

The novel is daring because this is a white author writing about a black man, as well as a female author writing from the perspective of her male hero. But it is also daring because this black man becomes fascinated by a young white teenager, Fay Taft, whom he hires right after she “walked into the bar.” He is aware of the racial issues this fascination may prompt, but he cannot help himself. He tries to fight her attraction, but this becomes even more difficult after she says that she has fallen in love with him.

And if a “romance” between a fortyish black man and a white teenager is not daring enough, there is the matter of Fay’s dead father, simply called Taft. For this brings a major structural shift. Taft abruptly jumps into this novel in the third person, interrupting Nickel’s interplay with the staff at his bar, especially with his smart bouncer Wallace and a brash waitress, Cyndi. But even more, it interrupts his yearning for fatherhood, and his estranged relationship with his girlfriend Marion and their child Franklin.

The purpose of these Taft sections is initially unclear, for they go back as much as a decade or more to recreate the life of Fay’s family, especially the relationships among herself, her father, and her brother Carl. Until, toward the end of the novel, when Nickel, half awake, imagines himself personally witnessing some Taft family events. The reader then becomes aware that, all along, Nickel’s fascination with Fay has been prompting him to imagine her life before he knew her. Has put himself in the role of her father. And this also appears to explain the title of the novel, Taft. That it refers to her father as well as to Fay herself, thus re-enforcing the role that Nickel feels is missing from his life.

Which is also what makes the novel so interesting, this two-fold yearning by Nickel for fatherhood. For he has lost something of his identity when he gave up drumming at his girl friend Marion’s request, on the promise that he could be a father to his son. Except, she than absconded with the boy to Florida. And now he wants the fulfillment of having his son back. But for that he needs to persuade the visiting Marion to remain in Memphis.

Meanwhile, he is torn by his fascination with Fay, this white teenager. She has moved to Memphis with her brother Carl after their father’s death. And the novel’s dramatic tension, already built around Nickel’s relationships with two young people, is magnified when Fay’s brother Carl becomes a regular at the bar, seems to attract new customers, and then turns out to be selling drugs.

This prompts a dramatic confrontation, whose consequences bring the novel’s high point. Except, the novel ends quickly thereafter, without resolving these figures’ lives. Even raising the possibility that Patchett may have been considering a sequel. This did not happen, but all of these characters would have been interesting to follow into their subsequent lives.

It is significant that the issue of racial relations remains in the background of this novel. Meaning that this is, first and foremost, a novel about a good man who is torn by his emotions and by his yearnings for fatherhood. While Nickel is highly conscious of the racial difference between himself and Fay, both he and Patchett are concentrating more on the human relationship he has with Fay. Indeed, this reader had to be reminded at times that Nickel was black, for he is so human otherwise. As are his relationships with his former girl friend and her family, and with the entire staff at the bar.

What the novel concentrates on is Nickel’s frustration at not finding fulfillment in his life. He gave up drumming, at the plea of his girl friend, and he now realizes he is not fulfilled with his job managing the bar. He yearns to be a father, to have his son back, which would bring one level of completion to his life. Whereas, Fay’s advances promise a fulfillment he is not prepared to accept, even as it makes him aware of how much he misses having love in his life—as well as how he might be a kind of surrogate father to her. So we find a contrast between the emotional connection he needs to make with his son and the emotional distancing he realizes he should make with Fay.

There is perhaps even more contrast behind his yearning for fatherhood. He was intent on his music, on himself, until he became a father. Then he changed. Franklin’s existence brought a new meaning to his life. But then the boy is taken away. And Nickel’s yearning, it seems, is transferred to white teenager Fay. Except, such love is dangerous for a black man. And so he begins to imagine her father’s life. He sublimates his emotional connection to her by identifying with her own father’s past love for her. He yearns to become two fathers.

Diana Postlethwaite sums up this novel in the New York Times: “Modern variations are played on old-fashioned Shakespearean romance: tragedy and comedy intertwine; broken families are mended; the dead are brought back to life; and what is lost is found again.”

This novel is both simple and complex. The yearning for love, for a human connection, for fatherhood, is simple. The transfer of this yearning to two children, to two races, to two families, is more complex. Patchett understands in this early novel the depth that can be found in the emotional life of a good but lonely man, especially a man on the fringes of society who yearns for fulfillment. (May, 2017).

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

If one had asked me if I was interested in a brief multi-generation novel, I would immediately have said, no. Then I picked up this 2016 novel, and was immediately enthralled by the opening chapter, the description of a christening party in a house of cops and other middle-class people. During which there is a casual seduction scene.

Then the second chapter jumps a generation, and we encounter the father of the new-born child in chapter one being treated with chemotherapy. And we learn about both his divorce and his wife’s marriage to that seducer. Whereupon, in the third chapter we follow the six children of the two marriages, all of whom get along with each other—in fact, much better than they do with their parents. Where are we going, I ask, with all this? All I know is that I am again under Patchett’s spell. And am reminded that she is one of my favorite contemporary authors.

I am also reminded that that in the publicity for this novel Patchett acknowledged that she has used some of her own life story for the first time. It seems that her father, who was always the first reader of her novels, has now died; and she feels liberated, able to employ aspects of her own family story that he would not have been happy seeing in print.

This novel is about two blended families. In one family, Fix and Beverly Keating begin as the parents of daughters Caroline and Franny; and the novel opens at Franny’s christening party in California, where the two families live. In the second family, Bert and Theresa Cousins are parents of Cal, Jeannette, Holly, and Albie. Complications begin when Bert kisses Beverly in the opening chapter. Then we learn has married her, and taken both her and his own children back to his original home in Virginia. Which means the children move across the country alternatively each summer to visit their divorced parent—something the children delight in while the parents dread. These events are not related sequentially, however, which will prompt further discussion.

And then, about half-way through this novel, one becomes aware of a unique development. As the author moves us back and forth through disassociated parts of this family story, this has included daughter Franny’s unexpected liaison with a famous writer, Leon Posen. And then the reader learns that this writer has written a novel based on Franny’s family story. And has called it, Commonwealth. So here we have a novelist, Patchett, writing a novel based in part on family history about a fictional novelist writing a novel based on the history of a fictional family. How deep into metafiction can one get?

But while metafiction is behind the structure of this novel, it is not, I believe, the point of this novel. The point is the family story, the story of these two families and how the children blend together as a group. Which, as I understand it, has its inspiration in Patchett’s own story. And the message of these two families together is a message of human relationships—and how the relationships between two families can create a single family of relationships. Which, in turn, expresses not only how important family is, but how important human relationships are. This is underscored when the six children not only accommodate themselves to each other, but also learn to accept the parent who upset their home life in order to find a more compatible spouse.

My single reservation about this novel concerns how Patchett tells this story of these two families. It is as if she has studied the structure of the modern novel, which so often seems to involve a moving back and forth in time. Its purpose, I have written, seems to be to involve the reader more deeply in the novel—that is, by requiring him to actively bring the pieces together. With a secondary purpose of developing his interest in what is happening by forcing him to figure it out.

In this case, it means not only jumping ahead in time, as the first three chapters do, but also jumping back. How did Franny meet her lover, Leon? Why was Albie the black sheep of the Cousins family? But the primary jump back in time concerns the death of Cal at age 15. How did this happen? Did the four children he was with bear any responsibility? The answers are unveiled in multi-flashbacks, as the children debate their responsibility. It is a somewhat obvious technique to create suspense, but the final answer becomes incidental. It does help make the children more real, developing their togetherness; but it does not mark any turning point for this novel.

One strength of this novel lies in the various group scenes in which many characters interact. This strength harks back to Bel Canto. It begins here in the opening baptismal party, but also includes the Palmer House bar where Franny meets Leon; the summer house party of Franny and Leon, which is crashed by many of Leon’s colleagues; the fateful day when the four kids allow Cal to die; the errand of mercy by Franny and Caroline when Theresa falls ill; and even Beverly’s Christmas Eve party at the end.

There is also a grace note in the final paragraph, when Franny reveals that she concealed one family episode from Leon when she related the family history he used in his novel. “She had needed to keep something for herself,” Patchett writes in the novel’s last line.

It is a neat note on which to end this family story that otherwise has no real ending—neat because even though this family story covers 50 years, one is left with a sense of these lives continuing on. And, yes, it also recalls the novel’s metafictional element, which is why I say that as a reminder of Leon’s novel it serves as a grace note. That is, it leaves Franny with a private family experience that never became public.

I remain interested in where Patchett’s inspiration will take her next. (February, 2017)