Afoot in a Field of Men by Pat Ellis Taylor (Atlantic Monthly Press: paperback: $6.95; 169 pages)
If you love to read, there is no feeling in the world quite so wonderful as picking up a brand new book by a brand new author and realizing by the end of the first two pages that you've found a priceless star, that you're in the hands of a master, that you're in for hours of the purest pleasure. That's what happens in this new, marvelous book of short stories, "Afoot in a Field of Men," and from the beginning your only worry is that the book is so short; you're going to be done in 169 pages. (I solved that by going back to read the whole thing straight through again as soon as I was finished.)
Pat Ellis Taylor is so talented she hardly stays within explicable boundaries. All I can think of to compare these stories to was the first time I saw the Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night." There is material here that's supposed to be sad, but it's hilarious. There are characters here who are supposed to be poor but they're rich--millionaires in love. Even the landscape--the dusty valleys around the Rio Grande, or the slums of Austin and El Paso--are perceived as thick, rich, bejeweled and delicious. Just amazing is what these stories are. They ooze with love, they gibber with love, they giggle and swing and jabber with love. They're funny! They're great!
"Afoot in a Field of Men" appears to be a collection of tales by a woman whose father was a military man ". . . working in the basement of a granite computer building where all the wire connecting all the U.S. military bases in the world came together, sending out bullets and toilet paper, bananas, and knapsacks, powdered milk, and napalm canisters, to all parts of the globe as his computers indicated the changing seasons of climate and war."
At the age of 18 (naturally she won't be going to college) the young, fictionalized Pat Ellis needs a change, and her folks send her south to El Paso to live with an uncle. Pat gets one or two exciting whiffs of a Larger Life! Her uncle takes her to ". . . the domino parlors, the dog races, the Juarez strip shows, the Alcazar Bar where people poured wine on their heads and drank it from the streams down their nose . . . "
A Rowdy and Feckless Life
But Pat's aunt knows that such a rowdy and feckless life isn't good for a well-brought-up 18-year-old girl. She takes her niece to a department store, buys her a Playtex girdle that "looked like it was made out of an ivory colored dish-drainer mat." Then the aunt finds Pat a job as a secretary, and a poor, wretched journalist to marry: "I took night courses, read books . . . pretended not to be a secretary, pretended to be somewhere else, someone else, someone reclining on a couch watching candlelight on a red and black wall, in the meantime having babies . . . and so I remained, suspended, for eight years."
How easily a writer of lesser talent or smaller heart might have turned these stories into a diatribe about "the injustice of it all." And how easily these stories have already been (deliberately?) misunderstood, described fatuously by some East Coast publicity-person as tales of "rednecks, hippies, small-time cons, whores, hard-shell Baptists, bikers," and so on. These are, instead, stories of people who yearn chronically and irresistibly for literature, poetry, love, and the good life. People who live in the Southwest, people who still smoke a little dope when they can get it. People who never got to college, but who love their poetic vision so much that they give their lives for it.
Flash forward, then, to a Pat Ellis Taylor who's left her husband and a couple of her kids to live in a van with a poet named Leo, who has himself left a wife and a flock of kids of his own. Leo and Pat try farming for a while, but it really doesn't work. They move back to the city while they try (from a position of existential "nowhere" in America) to write. Sure, because they "dropped out" sometime in the '60s or '70s, they have some ties with commune life, Native American Indian life, a little free love, but always, their main concern is how, how are they going to pay the rent, write their work, live?
Pat is, by her own admission, a "God Chaser," with certain holy roller experiences that have taken place off stage. These mystical adventures serve mainly as a reminder that her eye is out for the higher stuff--again, the larger life. As her children come home, one by one, to roost with their mom; as her beloved poet flees the scene, as she is invaded, finally, by another single mother with another set of kids, as her house is overrun, finally, by rats as big as bob cats, we see her come to terms with her (absolutely glorious) life.