Cover image for Taps : a novel
Taps : a novel
Morris, Willie.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Physical Description:
340 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


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The final work by one of America's most beloved authors, TAPS returns to the stretch of southern delta that Willie Morris made famous with his award-winning classic NORTH TOWARD HOME and the enormously popular tales of his inimitable dog Skip. Morris said he put everything he knew into this novel, and the result is the crowning achievement of his career -- a tender, powerful, very American story about the vanishing beauty of the South and the fleeting boyhood of a young man coming of age in a time of war.

It is 1951 when sixteen-year old Swayze Barksdale watches the young men of Fisk's Landing, Mississippi, march off to a faraway place called Korea. Too young to serve overseas, Swayze is soon called to unexpected duty at home: a local boy is an early casualty of the war, and Swayze is enlisted to play "Taps" at his graveside. Gradually, Swayze begins to pace his life around these all too frequent funerals, where his horn sounds the tragic note of the times.

Still, life in Fisk's Landing goes on, with its comforting rhythms, hilarious mishaps, moments of pure joy. Young love blossoms, age-old hatreds flare. A cast of eccentric characters help shepherd Swayze into adulthood and teach him what it means to be a patriot, a son, a lover, a friend. Ultimately, when "Taps" is played for someone he holds very dear, Swayze learns what it means to be man.

Wonderfully assured, infinitely wise, TAPS showcases Willie Morris at his most accomplished and resonant, as he takes readers on one last fictional journey through his South, a place as familiar to him "as water or grass or sunlight." Sure to be an instant classic, TAPS is a beautiful, unforgettable story about ordinary people whose lives proceed with the same inevitability as the seasons until day is done.

Author Notes

Willie Morris is the author of "North Toward Home", "New York Days", "My Dog Skip", "My Cat Spit McGee", and numerous other works of fiction & nonfiction. As the imaginative and creative editor of "Harper's Magazine" in the 1960s, he published such writers as William Styron, Gay Talese, David Halberstam, and Norman Mailer. He was a major influence in changing our postwar literary & journalistic history. He died in August 1999 at the age of sixty-four.

(Bowker Author Biography) Willie Morris, 1934 - 1999 William Weaks Morris was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1934 to a family of storytellers. He graduated valedictorian of his high school class in 1952 and went on to attend the University of Texas in Austin. He was the editor of their newspaper the Daily Texan. He continued his education as a Rhodes Scholar studying history at Oxford University.

Morris was the editor of the liberal weekly newspaper, Texas Observer, from 1960-62. He was associate editor of Harper's magazine in 1963 and then became their youngest editor-in-chief, in1967. Morris turned Harper's into one of the most influential magazines in the country, attracting contributions from well-known writers, but because of editorial disputes, he quit in 1971. His leaving caused mass resignations of most of Harper's contributing editors. In 1980, Morris returned to Mississippi as writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Morris' publications included nonfiction, fiction, children's books and essay collections. "North Toward Home" (1967) was a bestseller and received the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award for nonfiction and was a selection of the Literary Guild. "Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town" (1971) was published not long after a difficult divorce. The book tells how a Deep-Southern town is affected by forced integration of the public schools. "Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood" (1971) and "Good Old Boy and the Witch of Yazoo" (1989) are two of the children's classics by Morris. His fiction novel "The Last of the Southern Girls" (1973) tells of a Southern debutante who goes to Washington D.C. In 1996, Morris received the third annual Richard Wright Medal for Literary Excellence.

On August 2, 1999, Willie Morris died of a heart attack in Jackson, Mississippi. He was almost finished with a project he was working on with his son about Mississippi's history and future.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Morris died in 1999, and it's hard to accept that this is his last book. The gritty but poignant writings of the Mississippian who served as editor at Harper's in the 1960s have included a book about his childhood dog and one about his cat, but most famously, Toward Home (1967), in which he recalled the South of his childhood. Taps is a summary statement of Morris' fondness for the Mississippi where he came of age, and as such, the novel reads like a memoir of childhood and youth. The main character is Swayze Barksdale, who, at age 16, is busy gathering impressions of the adult world at a time when the Korean War is waging. A trumpet player, Swayze has plenty of opportunity to observe those around him when he plays "Taps" at the funerals of deceased hometown GIs. Swayze has a best friend, who teaches him about companionship; he has a girlfriend, who teaches him about early love and sexuality; and he has an adult friend, whose life and death teach Swayze the ultimate lessons in love and loss. Plotlines are kept to a minimum; this is a novel of characters rather than story, and what delicious, real, and beautifully conceived characters they are. Times were simpler in the 1950s, but this is not a simple novel. It's a deep and enriching last act for the delightful Willie Morris. --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

Stilled by his death in August 1999, the voice of Willie Morris resonated with a particular Southern grace and eloquence. This posthumous novel, by turns poignant, funny, heartwarming and suspenseful, is worthy of comparison to Morris's classic North Toward Home. Set in the Mississippi Delta town of Fisk's Landing and spanning the early months of the Korean War, the narrative chronicles the adventures of 16-year-old Swayze Barksdale, who with his buddy Arch is called upon by hardware store owner and WWII hero Luke Cartwright to play "Taps" at the funeral of the first of the town's soldiers to fall in battle. The Korean conflict inexorably defines young Swayze's life as he participates in a succession of military funerals. When the much-despised Durley Godbold, the eldest son of an arrogant, domineering, wealthy landowner, is reported missing in action, Luke soon finds himself involved in an illicit affair with Durley's wife, Amanda. Swayze and his lifelong friend Georgia, the daughter of socially prominent parents, chance upon the lovers' secret and become conspirators of a sort. Stealing away to Luke's remote hideaway cabin, their own tender explorations are quickly fanned to flame. Illuminating the rich interior lives of the inhabitants of a Southern backwater, this tale of young love, intrigue, jealousy, treachery and violence is a deeply affecting swan song by one of America's most beloved writers. Echoing Faulkner and Caldwell, and Dan Wakefield's Going All the Way, it plays a fitting "Taps" for a literary genius cut down in his prime. (Apr. 16) Forecast: The recent movie version of My Dog Skip introduced Morris to a new generation, poised to become readers of this novel; retrospective reviews also might attract new readers. A six-city tour by the author's widow, JoAnne Prichard Morris, who will be joined by many of Morris's literary friends, and a tie-in with Father's Day merchandising should give the book a boost. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Luke Cartwright became for me a harbinger of death in that year. It was an ambient evening of early summer when he first came by my house. My mother was at a bridge tournament at the country club and would be late, and I was relishing the solitude from her injunctions. Earlier it had rained, and the trees arched in shadowy silhouettes, darkly green now before the coming of the heat, dripping with moisture in the cooling breeze. The hills began only a hundred yards from the house, and the whole earth sang with crickets and other nocturnal things. Soon the DDT truck came by, spraying for the season's first mosquitoes, known and acknowledged as the largest and most aggressive in Christendom, or so we believed. I heard the wheeze of a motor at the front curb. I looked up and saw Luke Cartwright stepping out of his red pickup truck with its high boxed rectangular cabin and a black cat sprawled on his dashboard. I stood to greet him. He was in khaki trousers and a metallic blue sports shirt that glowed under the streetlamp. From a few feet away a frog jumped in an arc and landed with a whish. "Ain't you a little old to be barefoot in your front yard in the middle of the night? How old are you, anyway?" "Sixteen, almost." "That's old enough." I had never thought of it that way, if indeed I had considered it at all. Does the only child -- the solitary son of a widowed and indomitable mother fraught with an inordinate propensity for intrusion -- dwell on age? Especially when she teaches tap dancing? Survival, perhaps, although I would not have used the word then -- nor escape nor improvisation nor even loneliness. Old enough for what? "I hear you play the trumpet in the band. And you're good." "Only pretty good," I replied. "Can you play 'Taps'?" Copyright (c) 2001 by JoAnne Prichard Morris and David Rae Morris Excerpted from Taps: A Novel by Willie Morris All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.