Padgett Powell’s Edisto
I read Padgett Powell’s Edisto a few weeks ago. The book killer Amazon sold it to me for a penny. I was ashamed for a while but soon developed a fuck-all attitude about it. Life’s short. We die. The world goes spinning along and fluttering pages deteriorate on the ground beside our hollow bones. Prepare for deals, is what I’m telling you. Make out like a goddamn bandit if you can. Give in to Amazon and pray for mercy upon the souls of small bookstores, wherever they may be.
Anyway, the book’s too short and the transitions suck (here’s a few of them: “About this time began a run of events,” “It looked about time I did some investigation of girls,” “Something more than all get-out”—these are chapter openers, by the way). None of the characters are developed particularly well. Most of the time, Powell is content to carry the narrative on the strength of his protagonist’s voice, a precocious eleven-year-old whose vocabulary is explained by his mother’s desire for him to become a famous novelist.
The plot: Simons (pronounced Simmons) Everson Manigault’s daddy leaves and a young man known only as “Taurus” happens upon the house one day whereupon a mysterious agreement is struck between him and Simons’s mother (“the Doctor”—a middle-aged college professor fresh off the divorce) whereby Taurus stays in the shack behind the house and fills in as Simons’s fatherly influence. The book is a series of set pieces punctured only by Simons’s absurdly beautiful interior life—this was Powell’s first book, written in the early eighties, and he seems to fall for some of the mistakes we young writers make—overwriting, a herky-jerky manner of moving Simons from scene to scene, an unbalance between exposition and action that sometimes makes you wonder if Powell was casting about for ways to lengthen an already short book—and yet, it’s quite clear that that un-nameable thing that makes a great writer (charisma? life force? confidence?) is crackling within, and on occasion unleashes itself. This happens outside Simons’s tidy little thought processes, when Powell is simply writing action. One of the first set pieces of the book, when Simons tumbles out the back of the bus and rolls down a small hill and up a crooked tree before settling at its base, is colorful and imaginative:
. . . when the emergency door flies open and it is not the Negroes nearest who go out and do cartwheels after the bus, it is you who gets sucked out into a fancy bit of tumbling on the macadam, spidering and rolling up the gentle massive cradling roots of an oak tree that has probably stopped many more cars with much less compassion. My tree just said whoa.
Simons’s attempt to “define” it, bookmark the experience, dampens it entirely for us (“Anyway, that’s what sniffing out things will do for you, and I was changed by discovering . . .”—who cares?). Time and again he falls into this particular routine. But that’s the point of the novel. An attempt at communication along the lines of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye—which Edisto was drawing comparisons to—fairly, I think—at the time of its publication. It’s clear, though, despite the gushing reviews on the back of the book, that Edisto is not on that level: it’s not complete enough a work. Powell leaves too much out (in the dialogue between the “adults,” which is purposeful but incredibly confusing, and in the transitions, between which the majority of the bonding between Taurus and Simons seems to happen); simultaneously, he packs too much in, in the way of Simons’s moralizing and lesson-learning. Some of the transitions (I’m hammering this shit into the ground, I know), too, seem far too calculated, which is an easy way to expose a writer (e.g. after Simons spends two pages randomly talking about Joe Frazier, Taurus asks him if he wants to go see the Ali-Frazier fight, which Simons, somehow, didn’t know was happening. Sure.) He’s determined, Powell is, to rope all these novelistic don’ts into a cohesive, satisfying narrative. He doesn’t succeed. But it’s occasionally thrilling, his failure—when the language veil lifts and Powell forgets to remember to impress, you find passages like the one above, and like this:
He’ll walk into a Cajun bar down in Louisiana and be on the inside in two minutes . . . some new profession, name maybe, no regrets, no losses, no cumbersome ideas of what he is or is to be, no freight train of future bearing down on him, no comet of good old days burning him to a cinder of constantly failing memory.
Times like that you want the words to keep tumbling, currents of them forever—deep, focused reading of such passages leads to those curious moments that cause us to attach ourselves to certain books, authors—little freak moments like hailstorms out of a clear blue sky, balls of ice popping on the horizon: you looking out the window, watching, wishing somehow to be in the midst. Every once in a while, in Edisto, Powell takes you there.