BOOK: Edisto by Padgett Powell (1984)

Simons (“You say it ‘Simmons.’ I’m a rare one-m Simons”) Everson Manigault is a 12 year-old boy who lives in Edisto, South Carolina, a sleepy little seaside town, some time in the late-60’s, I would guess.  He’s a boy with a vocabulary far beyond his years, having grown up with a mother (whom he calls “the Doctor”) who pushed books on him before he could stand.  But though he talks big, Simons is every bit as little a boy as all little boys are: as confused about the world, the people around him, girls in particular, sex in specific, and himself most especially.

One summer, a young African American man comes to the Manigault house to serve a subpoena, promptly scaring away the family maid, an elderly African American woman named Theenie who believes the man is her long-lost grandson, come to punish her for her daughter’s transgressions.  The Doctor sees something interesting in the man (in more ways than one, we suspect) and offers to let him stay in Theenie’s cabin on the beach as long as he’ll help out with Simons and teach him a few things.  Simons and the man, nicknamed “Taurus,” quickly become close friends.  Taurus is laid-back and thoughtful, Simons a bit more on the manic side, and the two spend the summer philosophizing, hanging out at a local juke joint called “Marvins R.O. Sweet Shop & Baby Grand,” and swapping lessons in the best ways to embrace life to the fullest.

This lazy, easy rowboat ride gets the tip when the Doctor’s ex-husband, Simons’s father (“the Progenitor”), comes back into the picture.  Though the two parents fight incessantly, usually over the laissez-faire mothering techniques employed by the Doctor, it gradually becomes clear to both Simons and Taurus that a reconciliation is in the works.  Calmly recognizing this, the two friends head out for one last day together, a day that features Simons’s first kiss and first crush (not on the same girl — and oh, don’t we all know how that goes), and then Taurus hits the road again, leaving Simons behind to forge his own way in a new life with a new-again family.

The story is pretty straight-forward, but the thing that makes this novel truly great and utterly addictive, for me anyway, was the language.  Powell not only has a masterful grasp of the nuances of childhood thinking, something that shines through even while disguised by Simons’s precocious speech, but the language of the locals — the dialect of the Doctor, Theenie, and the other characters we meet in the story — is brilliantly, sharply captured.  This is a simple coming-of-age story, but one with an intensely emotional sense of place and time.  It’s inventive, smart, hilariously funny at times, and absolutely on fire with the author’s obvious love for both his characters and his craft.

This is the first novel by Powell I’ve ever read, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more.  Tell me I won’t be disappointed?  Someone?  Please?

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2 Responses to “BOOK: Edisto by Padgett Powell (1984)”

  1. Kyle Edwards Says:

    I just finished the book about 3 minutes ago, and I was just as captured by Powell’s setting and language. Sadly though, I live near Powell (I’m a student of UF, where he teaches), and the woman at the bookstore where I picked up Edisto was not so enthusiastic about his later works. That’s just one opinion. I will say that I had to read An Interrogative Mood (which is questionable to count as a straight-up fiction) a while ago, and after reading Edisto, I appreciate it even more as yet another love letter to the English language.

  2. megwood Says:

    Thanks for the information, Kyle! I was a little bit wary of the sequel to this one, but I will definitely give An Interrogative Mood a shot now for sure.

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