From the Publisher
"Poignant, funny, heartwarming and suspenseful...a deeply affecting swan song by one of America's most beloved writers." Publishers Weekly, Starred
"Willie Morris's great novel, his summation...Taps is a triumph throughout with some of his finest prose. From the very first lines, his hard-earned craftsmanship is evident...a work of art, Taps was written to last." The Los Angeles Times
"Pure quadruple-distilled Willie Morris...[and] quite magical... Morris paints a full and vivid and moving picture of what it was like to be sixteen in the Delta in the 1950s." Memphis Commercial Appeal
"Engaging...endearing..charming and old fashioned...Taps is a good reminder of what we have lost with Willie Morris's passing." The Washington Post
When Willie Morris died in 1999 at age 64, Southern (and American) literature lost a remarkably eloquent voice. Morris left behind a novel set in his native Mississippi Delta, however - a book into which, he told his editor, he'd put everything he knew.
Now Taps is here. And it's all we might have hoped for: a tender, wistful, bittersweet tale about the South in the 1950s, on the brink of massive change but still defined by a complex interplay of present and past, of family and race and history.
Taps is set in the little Delta town of Fisk's Landing, clearly modeled after Morris' hometown of Yazoo City. It centers on 16-year-old Swayze Barksdale, the son of a high-strung widow who teaches tap dancing and frets about his every move. Swayze plays trumpet in the school band, bags groceries at the Jitney Jungle, cruises the highways and hangs out at the Rex Theater with pals Arch and Georgia.
It's an uneventful life, sweet and sheltered, much like the Yazoo City boyhood Morris chronicled in his acclaimed memoir, North Toward Home.
Then, one wisteria-scented evening, everything changes. Swayze is lying in the grass, looking up at the stars, when Luke Cartwright pulls up to the curb. A World War II hero who runs the hardware store, Luke has come to ask what he will, in the coming year, ask over and over of young Swayze.
Fisk's Landing has lost its first boy in the Korean War. The American Legion post is organizing a military funeral. Will Swayze play taps on his trumpet?
The boy consents (as Morris himself did, in Yazoo City, during the Korean War). Arch agrees to play, too, the two boys deciding each time by coin toss who will play the main taps, who an echoing response.
But no one is prepared for how often the sad tableaux will be repeated, as one young man after another comes home in a box from a faraway land no one's ever heard of.
As the year unfolds, Swayze will also fall in love with his childhood friend Georgia; find in Luke the father and brother he's yearned for; become privy to an adulterous affair between two adults he cares about deeply; finally make it off the bench in basketball; and witness a murder.
He'll learn, too, more than he ever imagined - about the fragility of life, the heart's capacity for both wonder and suffering, and what it means to be a man.
"The sense one makes of the past often derives from small, evanescent moments, seldom the grand designs," Swayze muses, looking back from the vantage point of middle age.
Taps is filled with such small moments - some hilarious, some heartbreaking, some simply the ordinary stuff of daily life.
There's the day Ricks Funeral Home becomes the first establishment in town to get air conditioning. The first hesitant fumblings between Swayze and Georgia. The day Coke goes from a nickel to six cents. The newspaper headline declaring proudly that Fisk's Landing Has 89 Television Sets.
Morris' writing is as graceful and evocative as ever, summoning up a time, a place and a mindset with breathtaking assurance.
The consummation of young love, he writes, is "wicked as incest, and innocent as a childish dream." A wealthy landowner is "a strapping feudal grandee in wrinkled summer seersucker."
In the end, as Swayze plays taps for someone he holds very dear, Morris writes: "It came to me that what we really had been playing all that year was a song to everyone resting in this graveyard, to everyone I had ever cared for, to my own distant progeny, as if in all those months Arch and I had been carrying on a secret conversation, just between ourselves, and that I had been giving answer to his question, over the grave and beyond it, about death in life, about the passing generations in their own solicitudes, about flawed people and all their dark inheritance."
Rest in peace, Willie Morris - especially now that you've left us with such a lovely last gift.
Los Angeles Times
Morris' going-away present was to arrange some of life's disparate pieces into a work of art.
...an intensely American story, a work of both compassion and insight, a crowning achievement for a favorite son now called home.
San Diego Union-Tribune
a lifetime of wisdom,...lessons and contemplations. Passion for life and a fervor to expose its depths are clear on every page.
The posthumus publication fo this novel is a fitting elegy for Morris.
Amid the rush of coming-of-age novels set in the Old Southwhere romantic nostalgia runs as rampant as kudzu vinesthe posthumous publication of this novel is a fitting elegy for Morris. The author, a renowned memoirist, has written a novel that, like so much of his writing, is a tribute to the author's Mississippi homeland. The narrator's name is Swayze Barksdale, a ruminative adult of indeterminate age recollecting the year that he turned sixteenwhen bittersweet lessons and "the throbs and melancholies of the living" deepened his understanding of the man he was to become. Beset by conflicting emotions that he lacks the maturity to resolvethe tragic death of his father, plainly a crisis for Swayze, is inexplicably mentioned only in passingSwayze comes to terms with love and loss through a romance so true and pure it can't possibly last. Morris's new novel brings his career full circle, and the plot mainly provides pegs on which the author can hang his descriptive raptures and down-home philosophies. "Ain't life itself a question mark?" asks one of the charactersan inquiry to which, the novel implies, only the grave provides resolution.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Stilled by his death in August 1999, the voice of Willie Morris resonated with a particular Southern grace and eloquence. This posthumous novel, by turns poignant, funny, heartwarming and suspenseful, is worthy of comparison to Morris's classic North Toward Home. Set in the Mississippi Delta town of Fisk's Landing and spanning the early months of the Korean War, the narrative chronicles the adventures of 16-year-old Swayze Barksdale, who with his buddy Arch is called upon by hardware store owner and WWII hero Luke Cartwright to play "Taps" at the funeral of the first of the town's soldiers to fall in battle. The Korean conflict inexorably defines young Swayze's life as he participates in a succession of military funerals. When the much-despised Durley Godbold, the eldest son of an arrogant, domineering, wealthy landowner, is reported missing in action, Luke soon finds himself involved in an illicit affair with Durley's wife, Amanda. Swayze and his lifelong friend Georgia, the daughter of socially prominent parents, chance upon the lovers' secret and become conspirators of a sort. Stealing away to Luke's remote hideaway cabin, their own tender explorations are quickly fanned to flame. Illuminating the rich interior lives of the inhabitants of a Southern backwater, this tale of young love, intrigue, jealousy, treachery and violence is a deeply affecting swan song by one of America's most beloved writers. Echoing Faulkner and Caldwell, and Dan Wakefield's Going All the Way, it plays a fitting "Taps" for a literary genius cut down in his prime. (Apr. 16) Forecast: The recent movie version of My Dog Skip introduced Morris to a new generation, poised to become readers of this novel; retrospective reviews also might attract new readers. A six-city tour by the author's widow, JoAnne Prichard Morris, who will be joined by many of Morris's literary friends, and a tie-in with Father's Day merchandising should give the book a boost. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Read an Excerpt
Luke Cartwright became for me a harbinger of death in that year. Itwas an ambient evening of early summer when he first came by my house. My mother was at a bridge tournament at the country club and would be late, and I was relishing the solitude from her injunctions. Earlier it had rained, and the trees arched in shadowy silhouettes, darkly green now before the coming of the heat, dripping with moisture in the cooling breeze. The hills began only a hundred yards from the house, and the whole earth sang with crickets and other nocturnal things. Soon the DDT truck came by, spraying for the season's first mosquitoes, known and acknowledged as the largest and most aggressive in Christendom, or so we believed. I heard the wheeze of a motor at the front curb. I looked up and saw Luke Cartwright stepping out of his red pickup truck with its high boxed rectangular cabin and a black cat sprawled on his dashboard. I stood to greet him. He was in khaki trousers and a metallic blue sports shirt that glowed under the streetlamp. From a few feet away a frog jumped in an arc and landed with a whish. "Ain't you a little old to be barefoot in your front yard in the middle of the night? How old are you, anyway?" "Sixteen, almost." "That's old enough." I had never thought of it that way, if indeed I had considered it at all. Does the only child the solitary son of a widowed and indomitable mother fraught with an inordinate propensity for intrusion dwell on age? Especially when she teaches tap dancing? Survival, perhaps, although I would not have used the word then nor escape nor improvisation nor even loneliness. Old enough for what? "I hear you play the trumpet in the band. And you're good." "Only pretty good," I replied. "Can you play ‘Taps'?" Copyright © 2001 by JoAnne Prichard Morris and David Rae Morris