I have been an avid purchaser of Ann Patchett’s books for quite a while, but this is the first one I’ve actually read. According to my Goodreads account, my boss lent me this book back in the fall of 2012, which sounds like longer ago than it feels like. A brief aside: I was going to wax philosophical about all the things about my life that have changed since my boss handed me this book, but I’ve spent about four days trying to make that version of this post happen, and I’ve gotten absolutely nowhere with it. So I’m starting over, and keeping it simple.
The narrator of Taft is a middle-aged African American man named John Nickel, who manages a bar in Memphis called Muddy’s. Nickel, as he is more often called, seems like a pretty good guy, though he messed things up with the mother of his child a few years ago—Marion and his son Franklin no longer live in Memphis; they relocated to Miami when Marion got a job offer at a hospital down there (she’s a nurse). Nickel used to be a drummer in the Memphis jazz scene, and it sounds like he was a pretty good one, though he never got his big break. He gave up the musician life in order to be a more present father to his son, and now that Franklin is gone, he doesn’t have much in his life besides work and the occasional phone calls he makes to Miami. One day, a white girl named Fay Taft shows up at the bar looking for work. She says she’s twenty, but no one quite believes her. She’s new to Memphis, having relocated from a small town in east Tennessee after her father passed away (we learn that later). With her comes her brother, Carl, who ends up being more than a bit of trouble for Nickel. Somehow, Nickel gets roped into the Taft family’s life drama, and this causes him to imagine what things were like for them before their dad died.
The story alternates between present-day Memphis (in short, Nickel works, misses his son, visits Marion’s family; Fay falls in love with him; Carl gets into deeper and deeper trouble) and Nickel’s imaginings of Fay and Carl’s father. As the book goes on, we spend more time with the Taft family back in Coalfield, and it becomes unclear whether or not the events being depicted actually happened or if it’s just what Nickel imagines could have happened, or a combination of the two. I’m not sure if it’s an important distinction, though it seems like it should be. As the present-day story progresses, and Nickel gets more and more wrapped up with Fay and Carl, the flashback story gets more and more page time. I actually enjoyed both storylines equally, though the question of how much of the Coalfield story was fabricated by Nickel still digs at me, and I finished this book a week ago.
Ultimately this is a novel about love: primarily paternal love, but there are other kinds of love present in Taft, too. Nickel loves Franklin so much, and Patchett writes about it so well. I’m not sure what kind of love Nickel feels for Fay and Carl (really just Fay), and I’m not sure that he knows himself for the better part of the book. I suspect he has a fatherly sort of love for Fay, though she definitely has much stronger feelings for Nickel than that. Nickel and Marion love each other, though it doesn’t seem like they are going to end up together as more than Franklin’s parents. Marion’s parents love Nickel like a son, and they love Marion too, of course. There really were a lot of healthy relationships in this novel, and it’s too bad that Carl is such a bad seed.
I do recommend this book, though the ending is definitely not neat and tidy with all loose ends tied up. I was reading on goodreads and people who have read more of Patchett’s books say that this is definitely not as strong as Bel Canto or The Patron Saint of Liars, and since it’s only her second novel that doesn’t surprise me much. I’m glad I read it, and Patchett’s writing is lovely, even when she is describing unpleasant things, like Fay’s desperate attempts to seduce Nickel, as well as Taft’s death scene. The major issue I had with it is simply not knowing how close Nickel’s version of Taft’s life in Coalfield is to the real thing.