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As a graduate of the University of Mississippi and a current resident of Jackson, Miss., Scott Morris has spent much of his young life living far below the Mason-Dixon Line. And in these media-driven modifier-maniacal times, that proud addressplus the fact that his debut novel was published by Athens, Ga.,’s Hill Street Press and has been endorsed by the haughty lit mag Oxford Americanhas garnered Morris the magical sobriquet of “Southern writer.” Never mind the fact that he’s published many of his words in publications unburdened by Piggly Wiggly coupons (including the Washington City Paper) and that his writerly influences couldn’t be more Northern: Morris could pack up the U-Haul tomorrow and shuttle north to Burlington, Vt., and he’d still be considered an up-and-coming student of Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor.
But, although Morris’ The Total View of Taftly is indeed set in a quirky, comfy Southern burg not unlike Hootervilleand boasts myriad eccentric characters such as tubby, tough-talkin’ twins Trixie and Trina Clydesdalethe author’s sad-sack protagonist has been birthed from a literary land much colder than Dixie. Although Taftly Harper never comes right out and proclaims he “should have been a pair of ragged claws/scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” he is very much the modern-day incarnation of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrockwith just a hint of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s jug-bearing Old Eben Flood thrown in for comic relief. (Eliot spent most of his life in Britain; Robinson was a lifelong resident of Maine.) Morris may stumble in the book’s second half, when trying to inject superfluous plot into the mix, but his first-half portrait of disheartened loner Taftly, a man with “wild dreams and longing,” a simple man in a simple town, is adeptly rendered not with the garish brushstrokes of a Southern Gothic stylist but the quick, vague, lovely breaths of a reserved Northern poet.
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After disappearing for a few months with a sexy running magazine and the burning desire to lose weight, the formerly obese Taftly returns to his quiet, quirky hometown of Copiah Springs lean, tan, and desperate for someone to love. As the newly svelte 30-something leans against the bar in the Copiah Harper Tavern, searching the crowd for the woman of his dreams, Taftly reminisces on his metamorphosisthose awkward initial attempts of a couch potato to get in proper shapeand allows Morris to craft some of his finest prose:
Early the next morning, Taftly managed a mile. It was to be the first of five, but his confrontation with gravity proved so debilitating he was left gasping alongside a ditch. He felt as if he were wearing a sweat suit packed with stewed lard and yearned to run fast enough to actually slough off about thirty excess pounds at once, ridding himself of blubber by achieving Gs, such as fighter pilots do when breaking the sound barrier….His momentum was principally a coordinated falling forward. He did this heavily.
No longer a “bloated terrapin stripped of its shell,” Taftly is convinced that with his new physique, the local women will line up to claim him. Unfortunately, the first and only women to bid on Taftly are the rude ‘n’ crude Clydesdale twins, cartoonish behemoths with not a single social grace between them. They feel betrayed by Taftly for losing weight, and they gang-tackle him one afternoon as he’s walking home from the bar:
Realizing Trixie was actually going to try to service herself with him, he began to fight again and beat them back. He did so without dignity, slapping and clawing at their faces like a child until he had gained his feet and stood uncertainly with his pants about his calves. When he reached to pull up his britches, Trina assaulted him with a right cross. He fell backward, and the girls began to cackle and attack him with their feet. Taftly felt as if he were being stampeded by two elephants drugged to their tusks on amphetamines.
This incident sets Taftly back on his quest, but just as he’s accepting a long life of loneliness, he meets Fay”long in the leg, she had a remarkable rear”the confused girlfriend of both a drug dealer and a doctor, the latter of whom she plans to marry, despite her intensifying feelings for Taftly. As the young couple fumbles through a sweet, awkward courting process, Morris airs out the insecurities of love:
She stood and went to the kitchen for more ice, arriving even nearer to Taftly’s side with a momentous seriousness. Taftly was struck with a vile notionhow could Fay be as wonderful as she was and yet be willing to sit here with Taftly Harper? He fought the thing off, the double-edged insight that diminished the both of them. It was the kind of thinking that had kept him lonely all his life.
Emotionally unable to take any more chances, the ultimately practical Fay leaves fatal dreamer Taftly for the security of a more-monied man, the nebbishy doctor living a few towns away. As Fay quickly gets pregnant and resigns herself to a new role as homemaker, Taftly, operating entirely within the confines of his own skull, gives up on his dreamwife, home, kidsand flees Copiah Springs for the isolation of the surrounding woods. It is here, living in a cabin on the shores of a small fishing pond (read: nowhere), that Taftly meets Dennis Jolly, a former alien abductee and a motormouthed paranoid who becomes convinced that the distraught musings of his new neighborTaftly takes to howling at midnightare signs of a genius. Taftly, on the other hand, wishes that Dennis Jolly would just go away.
It was hard to say how old Dennis was, or why he was. His essence, Taftly determined, was superfluity. He sometimes had the aspect of an invincible fortress of uselessness. Evolution could never account for Dennis Jolly. He seemed to have been a mistake of proportions that could only find explanation in the existence of a malevolent deity. Had Darwin discovered Dennis on one of the Galapagos Islands, he would have theorized his way into a suicide.
But, although Jolly is a fleshed-out comical character, with his arrival, Morris betrays his main viewpoint and loses insight into the inner workings of Taftly: The author is unable to handle the two men together. Morris also makes a late grab for plotTaftly’s long-lost father returns, Jolly hatches a plan to make Taftly a hero, Fay’s doctor husband gets sickbut by this point, the novel has become turgid without the strength of Taftly’s “total view” to keep things moving.
What Morris has failed to realize is that his book is most exhilarating when the reader is provided with nothing more than the cerebral machinations of a common man gone good. Late in the story, Morris returns to Taftly’s brainpan and reveals a blissful transformationand the complete character study that could have been:
Taftly sat on his porch and waited for Christmas while stars fell like a gentle distant rain. He counted ten and let them be. He thought of Fay and the doctor. He thought of Dennis. It occurred to him then how much he wanted his life. It was like a secret present that had been kept in reserve for a special occasion and now, at last, had been opened. He was astounded to discover that he wanted moremore time, more life, the chance to feast on God’s rich diet, millions and millions of Total Views.
Morris should be allowed the occasional foibles of a young writer. This is, after all, his first novel. Plus, what the Southern writer (with the Northern heart) manages early onthe leisurely and poetic dissection of a regular man, his heroic notions mingling with cowardly instincts, his heartbreaking Prufrocknessis reason enough for adventurous fiction fans to read Total View. No matter how far they live from a Piggly Wiggly. CP