With 'Oracle' stories, Peter Taylor monitors decline with careful, sidelong looks

February 14, 1993|By Madison Smartt Bell

THE ORACLE

AT STONELEIGH COURT.

Peter Taylor.

Knopf.

323 pages. $22.

Peter Taylor's stories are most immediately striking, and in the end most memorable, for their quality of voice. It's a voice that buttonholes you, insinuates itself into your ear, so that the story experience is more like listening than reading. The voice is painstakingly modulated, decorous and sophisticated, sometimes more persuasive in tone than in what it has to say. From story to story the voice sounds very similar, but it would be a mistake to assume that it is the author's voice, or that it can be trusted in every case, despite its tone of ingratiating candor; Mr. Taylor is the most masterful manipulator of disingenuous, self-deceiving narrators since Henry James.

A Taylor narrator is apt to be most genuinely honest and believable when speaking with the most apparent indirection. Such seems to be the case with "Demons," a remarkably intractable and unforgettable story, comparable with such other Taylor classics as "Daphne's Lover" a couple of volumes back. "Demons" is openly concerned with voice: the disembodied voices that the narrator, Louis Price, remembers hearing as a child. Little Louis is the victim (or beneficiary) of some kind of supernatural ventriloquist. Furniture and trees seem to talk to him, sometimes uttering accurate prophecies or persuasive ideas but as often only talking a kind of comic nonsense. In the end he must give up his voices or lose the real world, and though he makes the sacrifice he cannot help listening back, regretfully, for what he used to hear. It's a comic situation, but poignant, too.

There is more obvious comedy in all of this collection than in most of Mr. Taylor's earlier work. The considerable wit found in many of his previous stories usually depends on complicated and subtle situational ironies that lie well below the surface of the narration and to which the narrator makes no direct allusion, as if it would be impolite to do so.

Moreover, the humor of these stories is usually quite bitter at its core. By contrast, several stories in "The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court" are quite overtly funny; it would be hard to read "The End of Play" or "The Decline and Fall of the Episcopal Church" without laughing aloud.

This latter story shows Mr. Taylor at his intriguing best. Its comedy concerns the adventure of a baptismal font removed from a razed Episcopal church in a small Southern town and displayed as a birdbath by the wife of the contractor who did the razing. In its new position, the font is presumed to be an affront to the sole surviving member of the town's once-haughty Episcopal congregation, though really it is the non-Episcopal townspeople who are most offended.

The best solution that emerges from the ensuing farce of misunderstandings and vexed good intentions is to make the font disappear completely from the community -- so that, in an embittered final twist, a more recent cluster of Episcopalians "have had to establish their new church without any relic of the past."

Along with the more obvious comedy, the Gothic elements latent in Mr. Taylor's earlier work emerge to a much greater prominence here, along with some of the more sordid aspects of ordinary human behavior. Sex, for instance, which previous Taylor narrators would contemplate through a virtually impen

etrable roseate haze, happens here in the raw. Remarkably, Mr. Taylor has managed with his skillfully non-explicit treatment to make the illicit sex that occurs in "The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court," "An Overwhelming Question" and "The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs" seem genuinely shocking.

His involvement in grotesque extremes of action has become more open. In the earlier story, "The Hand of Immogene," one of Mr. Taylor's more deceitful narrators becomes unconsciously bound up in a grisly atrocity; here, in "The Witch," the narrator carries out the murder with his own hand, though he's still unable to acknowledge it.

Along with this sort of event comes a good deal of frank supernaturalism that goes well beyond the spirit voices in "Demons." There are as many Gothic situations in these stories as one would find in Edgar Allan Poe. The title story toys with the spiritualistic occult. There are ghosts in all three of the one-act plays included, as well as in "The Real Ghost." "An Overwhelming Question" turns on a gruesome fatal accident, "Cousin Aubrey" on the hint of a substituted corpse.

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