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Polly PaddockWhen 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.
— RealCities RealBooks.com