Willie Morris was one of the great literary figures of his day. A gifted conversationalist, he was that rare writer who befriended not only fellow scribes but presidents, actors, producers, professors, businessmen, sundry oddballs and dogs everywhere. Born in Yazoo City, Miss., in 1935, he became a Rhodes scholar and went on to write 16 books, among them the award-winning classic memoir, "North Toward Home," "Faulkner's Mississippi" and "My Dog Skip." During the '60s, he served as the youngest editor-in-chief in the history of the nation's oldest magazine, Harper's, publishing writers such as William Styron, David Halberstam, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer. A master of the essay, Morris' collection "Terrains of the Heart" is as good as collections get.
Of course, there was always supposed to be "Taps," Morris' great novel, his summation. Started back in his Oxford days, he had abandoned it many times. During the last 15 or so years of his life, it was said that he'd returned to it--some claimed Morris had simply been beaten by "Taps," that he couldn't pull it off. As the years passed and expectations grew, some suspected that maybe Morris had become afraid of finishing.
But as it turns out, before Morris died in August 1999, one of his last requests to his wife, the editor JoAnne Pritchard Morris, was that she take his final notes and corrections and see that "Taps" was published. "Taps" has emerged at last and readers will find that Morris pulled it off after all.
"Taps" is a triumph throughout, with some of Morris' finest prose. From the very first lines, his hard-earned craftsmanship is evident: "We were flatland people, each of us in this little long-ago tale: Luke and Amanda and Durley, Georgia and Arch and myself ....The town was poor one year and rich the next, and everything pertained to the land--labor and usury, mortgage and debt. We lived and died by nature, Anglos and Africans bound together in the whims of the timeless clouds. Our people played seven-card stud against God."
Set in fictional Fisk's Landing, Miss., during the 1950s, "Taps" centers on 16-year-old Swayze Barksdale. The expected coming-of-age themes are expertly handled, but what brings them into such sharp relief is the fact that Swayze's home town is under siege by corpses. Almost every week a train brings another dead soldier home from the faraway Korean War.
The only available trumpet players, Swayze and his buddy Arch are asked to play "Taps" at the funerals. The two boys flip a coin each time, the winner getting to play echo: "An echo, I would learn, was a kind of life in perpetuity, remote and immune, distant lingering notes from afar, sweetly voyeuristic, while the grave was, after all, the grave."
Swayze, whose father died when he was a child, becomes close to Luke Cartwright, a veteran of World War II who is in charge of military burials. Presiding over the town is the vicious Leroy Godbolt and his bully of a son Durley, who marries and subsequently abuses his beautiful wife, Amanda. After going to Korea, Durley is shortly listed as missing in action. Luke and Amanda begin a love affair, something that is known only by Swayze and his girlfriend Georgia. But where is Durley? Is he dead as everyone expects? When will the war end and with it, the parade of bodies? Will young love die between Swayze and Georgia?
The mark of the mature novelist is wisdom, and "Taps" reads like a novel that required an entire lifetime of experience for its making, as indeed it did. Every time poor Swayze gets caught up in the thrills and turmoils of growing up, he is back at the graveyard to perform his duty--in the midst of sweet life, the eerie notes of "Taps" linger.
"Set beside the slow, dalliant days of youth, why must time dwindle so swiftly as one ages? Just as we begin to perceive the complexity of the puzzle, to ponder its disparate pieces, we must rush before the hour grows too late," Morris writes toward the novel's end.
In the face of this inevitable progression, Morris' going-away present was to arrange some of life's disparate pieces into a work of art. "Taps" was written to last. *