The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered

Penguin Books  2017

 

Benjamin Taylor's The Hue and Cry at Our House is a jewel of a book. Taylor details a single year in his life, starting on November 22, 1963, when, as a sixth-grader, he shook President John F. Kennedy's hand in Fort Worth, Texas. He uses this moment as an anchor to reach forward and backward in time to touch other events and occurrences. His choice of structure is utterly convincing: A year becomes all the years. The defining facets of his childhoodbeing rich, gay, Jewish, and Texas-bredare universalized through Taylor's thoughtful, sensitive reflections. In the face of current political and cultural divisiveness, it is a gift to see threads of one's own experience woven into a completely unfamiliar life. That Taylor can tease out those threads with grace and economy is a testament to his skill as a writer and inquisitive compassion as a human.

His roots are as improbable as his later successes: His ancestors fled pogroms and settled in Texas thanks to the beneficence of Jacob Schiff and the Galveston Movement in the early 1900s. His mother and father were nonreligious, solidly middle-class, and later wealthy, sometimes striving to fit in, at other times proudly different. They lived almost the exact same number of days on this planet, most of them spent together. Taylor and his older brother were the first in their family to not speak Yiddish. The morphing, shifting, and adapting of Jewish identity within a dominant (and wildly antagonistic) culture may be the backbone of much anti-Semitism, but that survival forged the opportunity for Taylor, a self-described “tiptoe walker, a hand-flapper, a ninny under pressure and a shrieker when frightened or angry. A mortification,” to exist in the full complexity of his queer, bookish, atheist, Jewish and mildly autistic self.

Taylor's accolades and critical acclaim are glowing to the point of suspicion, yet his career output isn't exactly prolific. That contrast exists, it seems, due to Taylor's careful handling of his subject matter. Hue and Cry is no exception, as Taylor recounts both tragedy and epiphany with the becalmed perspective of someone who has already lived a complete life. “Offered the chance to have life over again from the start, I know I'd say no,” he writes. “Young again? When the greatest satisfaction has been getting older? Young for what? To endure again the thousand natural shocks? When what I want now is to earn my grave? I've picked it out and the plot is paid for.”

The literary quality of Hue and Cry, which tells its story without the constraints of linear chronology, is a clear result of Taylor's life in books, not least of which is his work on Proust and Saul Bellow. That a deep relationship to fiction can make the “real” world more manageable is a sense shared by many readers, and Taylor's memoir serves the same purpose. Even though he recounts lived events, they're tinted by nostalgia and made literary in the style of their telling. “Literature […] existed to convince me that other people were as real as I was,” Taylor writes. With its delicate yet profound handling of a single year in a single life, Hue and Cry contributes to the difficult task of shaping a shared and empathetic reality.



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