Two Pilgrims by Peter Taylor, 1963
The magic trick:
Controlling the story’s tone, bouncing back and forth between different feels
This is the third Peter Taylor story I’ve read for the blog. Each is drastically different from the other in content, setting and characters. Yet they all bear the mark of Taylor’s remarkable gift for tone.
In “Two Pilgrims,” he shuffles the reader through a range of tones, feelings and expectations. We get something very close to laugh-out-loud humor as the two old men inspect every old piece of junk they rescue from the burning house. The laughs peak with the discovery of the child’s chamber pot, but Taylor shifts the tone immediately to one of horror and potential tragedy when the woman screams for her missing baby, lost in the fire.
This, of course, ushers in the sense of tremendous danger and suspense, only to resolve quickly into a sense of relief, some confusion, some anger and even more humor. The everchanging vibe isn’t just for show. It is reflective of our young narrator’s view of the proceedings. He isn’t quite sure what to make of these people, this region, and he’s pretty sure he doesn’t like any of it. He’s still learning to sort it all out, while his elders take a more nuanced view, with a more mature perspective. The inconsistent tone in the story is itself the main theme. And that’s quite a trick on Taylor’s part.
Once we had got back into the car and were on our way again, I was baffled by the quiet good humor – and even serenity – of those two men I was traveling with. The moment they had resettled themselves on the back seat of the car, after giving their overcoats a few final brushings and after placing their wide-brimmed fedoras firmly on their heads again, they began chatting together with the greatest ease and nonchalance.