Tales Out Of School
The strange hothouse world of Galveston Island, Texas, has been good to the Mehmels, German Jewish immigrants who prosper there in the late nineteenth century, and whose second generation is still flush as the century turns. But destruction – moral and natural, including the great hurricane that nearly destroyed the city – is not far off, and for bookish, fourteen-year-old grandson Felix, last of the line, salvation lies in self-discovery. Pried away from his Ovid and Virgil, he is seduced by the rough, handsome bully who has long taunted him. And over the sultry summer of 1907, he asserts his independence and launches into manhood even as his family’s morale, sanity, and fortunes wane. Erotic as it is exalted, defiantly comic as it is sad, Tales Out of School is a timeless novel by a masterful contemporary writer.
Praise & Reviews
Elegant, lyrical and elegiac, this powerful first novel affectingly introduces members of a genteel, wealthy German-Jewish family living in early 20th-century Galveston, Tex. Felix Mehmel, scholarly and loyal, works his way through the Aeneid and through adolescent stirrings of desire, which he acts upon with Wick Frawley, once a bully and now a friend. Felix’s mother, estranged from her New Orleans Christian community for marrying a Jew, finds herself vulnerable once more after her husband dies during the 1900 hurricane. Her brother-in-law Leo becomes the enthusiastic sponsor of Roache and Munger, amateur “aeronauts” who model themselves after the Wright brothers. The mysterious and benign interventions of Yankel Schmulowicz, a mute immigrant from Russia, who stages puppet shows so realistic that the audience is spellbound, indelibly alter the lives of these people and others in their orbit. Taylor’s spare, supple prose easily accommodates effective forays into magic realism as well as nuanced evocations of the desire, religious doubt and affection that animate his memorable characters. Because he handles so many different characters in a short narrative span, some of them inevitably are less than full-bodied actors in his human comedy. It is a measure of his skill that even those met briefly in this bewitching novel continue to resonate in the reader’s imagination. Author tour.
Soon after immigrating to Galveston Island, the Gerson Mehmel family attains wealth (as brewers of Sweet Brook beer) and social prominence. A few decades later, bankruptcy, disease, and madness wipe out all their gains. The able elder son, Aharon, marries outside his Jewish faith, contracts syphilis, and dies in a hurricane. The effete younger son, Leo, watches birds and loafs. As the sole member of the next generation, Felix is a precocious adolescent who quotes Virgil, attempts to fly, and experiments with homosexuality. Meanwhile, his mother suffers the inner turmoil of having been raised a Catholic, converting to Judaism, and becoming an apostate to both religions. Taylor’s first novel combines grand lyric musings with realistic social commentary. Containing a character with arcane powers, it is at times a disquieting mixture of the magical and the mundane.