Edisto by Padgett Powell

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Edisto by Padgett Powell

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A much more conventional debut for Padgett Powell, giving us a rarefied coming-of-age story very much at odds with his later novels.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: November 2012
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 9781846688126

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Welcome to the household of the Duchess and our narrator, Simons (pronounced as with two Ms), a luxurious building set in the Carolinian coastal town of Edisto, and a white household in a friendly black neighbourhood. Our story starts when a man arrives, trying to serve a court order to the maid's daughter, an act which drives the maid to flee, and which leads to the man replacing her in her shack. He doesn't exactly do the housework as she did, but he does help the household out, for the Duchess is quite Bohemian in attitude, and wants her twelve year old boy to be a dazzling authorial prodigy. He already has a stool with his name on at the local black bar, but the man – who Simons decides to call Taurus – is going to be a peculiar father figure, opening his world up into that of adulthood.

While that make this sound like a regular coming-of-age tale, you have to bear in mind this is by Padgett Powell, and even if this debut novel, written in the early 1980s, is so much more mainstream than other books of his we've read, we're in a very different world to what we might expect. It's a very rich one, for sure, with colour issues, class differences, and the bizarre nature of footwear for the maid and her friends in her other career, as a basket-weaver. While Simons lives with his mother, the alcoholic genius-that-might-be, called the Duchess by everyone who knows her, the real father is around, and the complex life the household weaves around itself is one of the main narrative features.

The other is the fact that Taurus is here principally to enlighten the boy, and he does this in a way that is not as heavy-handed as other authors would have it. He takes him to a boxing match, he makes sure they double date when he wants time with a girl he knows, he responds to questions about sex but doesn't go the whole hog in instruction – leaving the naivety of Simons' first-person narration to bring out the comedy (although a quick communion scene is perhaps the funniest here).

That narration is definitely where Powell stretches this book from the routine into the unusual. The first ten pages or so are definitely hard on the eye, certainly to the British reader. The rhythms of the voice, the vocabulary and cultural references are a bit off-putting (what the hell is a goober-bottle rig, anyway?!) and you'll feel the same thing as Simons while he tells of being thrown from a moving bus and cartwheeling to a stop yards away, momentum carrying him literally someways up the trunk of a tree.

That's to show perhaps the pinch of salt you might wish to use with Simons, but you do get to see the honesty in the lad. He writes his story and talks this way because he has been force-fed high-brow literature by the Duchess – well it was that or the boy's father's preference of baseball. There is a case for saying that that makes for the only difference between this and countless other similar tales of a young boy with an influential surrogate father figure, but it is a huge difference in Powell's hands. He certainly gives you something that you could at times second-guess yet delivers it in a wholly fresh way, with a completely formed new voice. It's not a voice that's completely easy to read – for one you never get told exactly when this is set – but give it time and patience to warm to the syntax and approach of Powell and Simons working as a fully combined double act, and this is an interesting read.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The Selected Works of T S Spivet by Reif Larsen also looks back slightly at Catcher in the Rye, but in this the child, a different kind of savant, moves a lot further around his world than just the town of Edisto.

Buy Edisto by Padgett Powell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Edisto by Padgett Powell at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Edisto by Padgett Powell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Edisto by Padgett Powell at Amazon.com.

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