Tales Out of School by Benjamin Taylor is about the fall of a wealthy family. Descendants from displaced German Jews the Mehmel family is one of the wealthiest in Galveston, Texas. The family started the first brewery in the area, grew rich off if it, and has spent most of the fortune by 1907 when the novel opens.
There are two sons, Aharon and Leo. Aharon has good business sense but he marries Lucy, a Catholic girl he meets on a trip to New Orleans. They have one son Felix before Aharon has a brief affair that leaves him with syphilis and Lucy with no opportunity for more children. The other brother, Leo, never marries. He lives alone in one of the better hotel rooms in Galveston studying birds and investing his part of the fortune in plans for building a glider.
Aharon’s son, Felix forms an unhealthy bond with a local bully, Wick. The two spend time alone together in what appears to be an abusive sexual relationship. Felix has much in common with his uncle, Leo. Both are probably gay, though since it’s 1907 neither character nor the narrator is open about this. Both are interested in high culture–Felix spends his free time studying Latin and practicing music. Both are drawn to lower class men as well. In spite of this, Felix rejects his uncle and ultimately the rest of his dysfunctional family to run off on his own.
There is enough in Tales Out of School to fill several novels. The characters are richly constructed and have such complicated lives that any one of them could be the sole subject of the book. The problem is that none of them are. The all share the stage equally, more-or-less, which produces an unsatisfying product in the end. The reader gets to know everyone well enough to be impatient with them but not well enough to be empathetic or even sympathize with them really. Mr. Taylor provides a glimpse into the lives of the Mehmel family, enough to get our interest certainly, but not enough to make us understand. This is one of the few times I’ve found a book under-written. Had the book been twice as long, I would have liked it much more.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2008.