The story of Fay Taft, a your white waitress, narrated by the black bar manager who gave her a job. The manager's feelings for her are paternal, but hers for him are sexual. What's more she has a brother who is a drug dealer and brings sleazy friends into the bar. By the author of The Patron Saint of Liars.
The first third or so of this book is pretty much flawless, on its way to one of my top books in a while. But the seemingly unnecessary gimmick of Nickel imagining (or channeling?!) what early life was like for the kids is distracting and doesn’t serve a useful purpose. Either switch between the two viewpoints and really get inside Taft’s head, or make it less detail-rich. It’s just bizarre and slightly creepy as written. The tension builds deliciously, but the resolution is sadly unsatisfying, and smacks of melodramatic YA lit. Maybe Patchett will get back to her roots with her next one, since it seems her first novel (Patron Saint of Liars) is the one I like best.
-- Henry Green
Ann Patchett's early novel "Taft" (1994) begins with these words from the British novelist, and as I think about the novel in the days after reading it I see that that, in brief, summarizes Patchett's story. Her characters seem to want nothing more than to go back home, back to earlier, happier times, even if those times weren't really as happy or as heavenly as they seem in memory.
The story is told by John Nickel,a black man and a former drummer, who now manages a Memphis bar. His former girlfriend has moved to Florida and taken their son with her. It was her idea that John give up music and get a steady job to better support his son. Now he misses his drums, misses his boy and even misses the ex-girlfriend who refused to marry him.
One day a white teenager named Fay Taft walks into his bar and asks for a job. Against his better judgment, he hires her, the first of many times when he finds he cannot say no to Fay. Soon her brother, Paul, begins hanging out at the bar. It's clear, to John at least, that Paul is high on drugs.
The Taft kids grew up in eastern Tennessee, but when their father died they moved to Memphis to live with relatives. They, too, have been cast out of their heaven.
Complications follow. Paul becomes a dealer, putting John's business in jeopardy. Fay decides she's in love with John and keeps finding excuses to be near him. His girlfriend and the boy return to Memphis, perhaps for a visit, perhaps to stay, but John has made the mistake of having sex with her sister. Then things really turn bad.
The title, oddly enough, refers neither to Fay nor her brother but to their father. There are flashbacks, apparently from out of John's imagination, about him and his kids back home.
This wonderful little novel leaves hints that maybe, just maybe, some of us really can go home again.
Patchett is usually worth reading even when, as here, she does not entirely succeed in bringing off what she attempts. Along with the main storyline set in the bar, there is a second line, like a backbeat, following the life of Fay’s recently deceased father. But it is unclear what this second storyline is doing, and even more confusing that it appears to be imagined by John himself. It smacks of high concept and design, perhaps, but the result is a muddle.
However, the real problem in this novel is that the narrative voice of John is simply unbelievable. No doubt it is brave of Patchett to even attempt it. But I don’t think she succeeds, as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t even realize John was black until three-quarters of the way through the novel when he explicitly says it of himself. That intrusion feels like an editor’s pen pointing out that even at this late date we have no clear vision of who this man is. Yet this in a first-person narrative. Pretty obviously something hasn’t clicked.
The result is that although the novel is not very long, it simply failed to hold my attention. I kept drifting off. And then the climactic violent final episode just appears, almost out of nowhere, or so it seems. There are better Patchett novels out there and, I hope, more yet to come. This one, though, is best left on the shelf.
I am a big fan of Ann Patchett but this was not my favorite of her stories. The story plods along at times and it was slow to develop to the climax. While the characters were fairly well developed, I didn't particularly liked the two teens and couldn't understand why John went out of his way to help them. The ending was more exciting than most of the novel, though even it seemed rather unreasonable.