31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 5: “The Boar’s Head Easter” by Timothy Taylor

May 5, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Silent Cruise

From the spring of 1962 through the spring of the following year, Jake’s mother lived with her husband in Chicago. While she was there, she took a lover. Jake discovers this thirty years later when he reads his mother’s journals, which he has uncovered in the den of the aging woman’s condominium. He recruits his friend Syd, a photographer, and Syd’s girlfriend, Erin, to accompany him on a trip to Chicago over the Easter weekend with the intention of tracking down his mother’s old flame, now in his seventies, who is the chef of a game restaurant called The Boar’s Head.

Beginning from that simple premise, Timothy Taylor weaves a stunningly graceful tale about the nature of desire and the enduring tug of love.

It helps that Taylor’s prose is so supple and his facility for sensuous details so finely honed. In particular, he is adept at writing about food, at one point launching into an extended dinner sequence that compares the sybaritic indulgence in fine cuisine to poetry:

We talked about poetry. We talked about a gallery showing Syd had set up for Vancouver on his return. I explained the consommé techniques that result in its being perfectly clear.

Rabbit and wild rice pie followed, a careful slice plated table-side, garnished with sorrel. Sauterne the surprising choice here but perfectly, opulently balanced, full sweet to full savoury. Endless taste playing through the mouth. Butter lettuce salad next. Tossed with hazelnuts and oranges, the individual servings piled artfully with silver tongs. A glass of crisp white Bordeaux, not too cold. Citrus echoed nicely in the fragrance.

Back to poetry.

The final sentence is unnecessary, because Taylor has located the poetry in food, the luxurious, gustatory sensation of it, captured in prose that sings.

Taylor is first and foremost a stylist, but this is easy to miss, because there is nothing flashy about his style – no overly clever metaphors, no twee phrasing or self-satisfied verbal contortions. But when he describes a train making its way through the night as “scudding across a black sea, drumming with the energy of the rails,” the image is pristine: at once startling and completely recognizable. The description of the train entering Chicago is equally well done:

We burst past the charred shell of a warehouse and crossed North Branch. A sticky, viscous meander. Useless even to commerce. Union Station didn’t announce itself. We slowed to a crawl. Rounded a half-submerged corner past a thirty-storey building with lattices of wrought-iron fire escapes spidering down its sides. Then the city disappeared as we went underground and trembled to a stop.

The train’s “sticky, viscous meander” is surprising and vivid; the “half-submerged corner” zings with originality; and the train that “trembled to a stop” will chime instantly with anyone who has had experience with this mode of transport. It takes consummate skill to make writing appear this effortless.

The subtlety of the prose finds its match in the subtlety with which Taylor moves his characters through the story, teasing out their relationships without ever resorting to heavy-handedness or bald exposition. Through a sequence of carefully calibrated scenes, it becomes apparent that Jake and Erin are harbouring an unrequited desire for each other. The way their relationship plays itself out, and the note on which it resolves itself, is effected in seemingly effortless fashion. So too is the burgeoning friendship between Klaus, the chef at The Boar’s Head, and Jake, who was once a sous-chef at a failed restaurant in Vancouver. The similarities between these characters and their chosen professions is not accidental, and the trajectory of their story is foreseeable based on the situation Taylor has set up. What is not foreseeable, however, is the force that Jake’s epiphanic moment carries with it, a force that hits the reader doubly hard because the process of building toward it has occurred without the reader even realizing it.

Like Alice Munro, Taylor is able to convey depths of meaning and multiple layers of understanding through deceptively simple prose. It is appropriate that the story takes place over Easter weekend, a period of death and rebirth, for these are the twin poles that epitomize Jake’s experience. At one point, Jake reads in his mother’s journal: “Some rather beautiful and difficult things can be made in a surprisingly short period of time.” Taylor’s story explores emotions that are both beautiful and difficult, and does so with ease.

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