Friday, November 16, 2012

Edisto by Padgett Powell

Simons Manigaults (said 'Simmons'), a  unique manic child ('so far ahead he's behine') is worried. His mother ('The Doctor') and his father ('The Progenitor') have separated.  She to pursue a Bohemian liberal lifestyle with her son, while the father occasionally comes to whisk off his son for more conventional weekends.  Part of the mother's Bohemian lifestyle involves the 'coroners' - a series of suitors of a certain sort, but Simons has developed a successful technique (involving a telescope) to see these off.  The latest coroner, however, is different.  He has proved to be more of a stickler, and furthermore has chased off the mother's maid-of-all-work/nanny, Theenie, by unintentionally convincing her that he was her long- abandoned grandson.  This means that The Doctor will now have to do without her 'holy folded linen and vacuumed floors' but this is not why Simons is worried.  What exactly Simons is worried about comes on page 82:

'I'm worried about puberty.'

But it turns out that the latest coroner, who is given the name 'Taurus' by Simons, can help in this.
He smiled. 'Don't.'
'Why not?'
'It's too big.'
'What do you mean?'
'Like nuclear war.  Nothing to worry about.'
'It either comes or it doesn't?'
'Yes, except here, it's coming.  So there's less to worry about than nuclear war.'

Simons installs Taurus in Theenie's living quarters, an abandoned shack, the two strike up an unusual companionship, and Padgett Powell's novel begins.

Edisto has recently been published in the UK by Serpent's Tail, but was originally published in the US about thirty years ago.  It's not really surprising it has taken so long to be published over here because it is very much an American novel - a novel of the deep south - with southern nuances, references and vocabulary.  For instance, the remnants of slavery - the halls, the market, the attitude to the 'nee-grow' is still evident, and some of it is shocking to modern, more northern sensibilities.  It is, however, surprisingly easy to understand after a little acclimatisation.  It is written with a feverish energy that doesn't immediately make sense if you read it too slowly.  You have to let go of yourself a little, not ponder over what exactly is, for example, a 'jelly glass' and allow yourself to be carried along.  What was a puzzle then miraculously makes sense and you end up 'getting' the jokes (of which there are many) and wanting to share them, but you can't because in order to understand them you have to be immersed in Simons' world (and anyway, no one can tell them like Padgett Powell).  Then you realise: you're part of club with an exclusive membership  - only open to readers of this book.

Apart from being a highly entertaining coming-of-age, the book is a record of life in the south.  It is an era before the stultifying effects of political correctness and has a raw honesty in consequence.  Edisto is clever and sly and funny.  The characters are quirky and memorable -  like, I suspect, Padgett Powell himself.


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