Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Gay, Lesbian Themes in Two Books
SET IN GALVESTON, Texas in 1907, Benjamin Taylor's first novel, "Tales Out Of School," swirls around 14-year-old Felix and his family, the Mehmels, who are slowly losing their fortune. They are owners of Sweet Brook Lager, "once the finest beer in Texas," but the product has degenerated, through disinterest and mismanagement, into "something undrinkable."
The Mehme clan has become a "wild and peculiar household." Lucy prays to the Virgin Mary even though she converted to Judaism when she married Aharon Mehmel. Aharon was lost in the great hurricane of 1900 which swept across the island. Their only child, Felix, walks "like a girl" and spends the summer discovering his gay sexuality, though it is Lucy's brother-in-law, Leo, who draws the most attention in town for behaving "more like a woman than a man, and was the family disgrace."
"Tales Out Of School" works best as a portrait of a community. Felix befriends Miss Etta Mae Murph and Miss Velma Truley, "two women who had slept in one bed for thirty years," and Leo, an amateur ornithologist, sponsors two bike mechanics who live in a treehouse and who are trying to make a biplane glider of their own design.
The merits and flaws of Taylor's first novel lie not within the creation of these idiosyncratic personalities or their actions but from the author's technique and style. Many of the chapters and episodes are constructed in a story-within-story format and, for the most part, these work beautifully, particularly in the case of the local rabbi who wages a "war for the soul of Felix" with Lucy. But a too precious archness to Taylor's prose style hampers many of his tales, making for some stilted phrases, for example: "Fear had folded its tents, stolen away," and, "Wherever you look twice time both ways is hurrying."
Taylor, who teaches at the writing program of Washington University, may have intended to produce a resonant novel with timeless and mythic qualities, but the shifting of his narration and point of view keeps his characters grounded, instead of allowing just one of them to soar lyrically into self-discovery. …