illie Morris is one of the sweet and tender voices of the South. I don't mean by this that he is without irony and toughness or that his work fiction or nonfiction is without violence and breathtaking loss, but rather that there is a sense of deep longing and a gentle heart in just about everything he has written. And, to be sure, he has written some lyrical and unforgettable work about his Mississippi homeland books such as North Toward Home and Homecomings as well as funny, touching tales like My Dog Skip and My Cat Spit McGee that bridge the gap between the worlds of adults and children.
Taps, a posthumously published novel, is Willie Morris' best book, a story written with genuine passion and soulful understanding. It is an old-fashioned Dickensian sort of novel, but with a Southern accent, filled with main characters one is compelled to love and hate and minor characters one is unable to forget. The plot has the simple authenticity of an honest memory, along with the mesmerizing power and the stunning inevitability of a gathering storm. The story is a retrospective tale told by Swayze Barksdale about the years during the Korean War when he played the trumpet at a succession of military funerals in his small Mississippi town. Fisk's Landing, population 10,000, is surely a fictional stand-in for Morris' own Yazoo City. As Sam Clemens had his Hannibal, Missouri, Willie Morris had his Yazoo City, the locus of his imagination. Swayze's narrative, written as a funny and poignant backward glance at young love, depicts an evolving understanding of all the heartbreaking beauty and sadness and unearned terror the world can offer. Morris' characters are truly and memorably drawn from a principal character like Georgia, Swayze's teenage sweetheart, an attractive collection of contradictions, to a minor figure like the ornate and complex personage named Asphalt Thomas, Swayze's basketball coach. Tragedy and loss are at the heart of the novel just as the Korean War shadows everything that happens in Swayze's life his love for Georgia, his friendship with Luke, his basketball games, his trumpet practices with his misanthropic friend Arch Kidd. Loss is a part of love and beauty Morris is not coy about that. But we have our stories to sustain us, and Swayze tells his, a story of death, of passionate love, of the fact that not even innocence can protect us from the cruelties of the world. Swayze's voice is Morris', it seems to me, at once comic and compassionate, as sparkling with poetry as F. Scott Fitzgerald's and as capable of illuminating evil as Mark Twain's. In a sense, this is a Southern story of arrogant patriarchs like the Godbolds and wonderfully eccentric teachers like Mrs. Idella King, of obsessive mothers and lost brothers, of a restless and powerful land . . . gentle too in its eternal promise of a place where all our troubled kind can rest when day is done. This novel is Southern in its lush Romanticism a quality tempered by a fine-tuned humor and in its sense of mystery and craving, in its occasional Faulknerian sentences and ever-present concern with old verities like loyalty, honor, decency and love. At times Morris' style may seem ornate or antique, but to me it is the sound of wind rustling through magnolia leaves, plaintive and lovely. This book, coming two years after his death, is like a gift, his spirit returned to us to speak one more time. Morris was a great lover of practical jokes. Not many, of course, were better than Tom Sawyer's observing his own wake. Morris, like Sawyer, returns after we thought he was gone. He comes back, it seems, to remind us just how much we miss him. This novel is a fitting elegy for him, a mournful tune, graceful and evocative, making us recall his remarkable talent and generous heart. Taps is Morris' voice from the grave, and it is hard to imagine a more lasting or beautiful epitaph.
Michael Pearson directs the Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. His most recent book is Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx Syracuse University Press).