Padgett Powell’s National Book Award-nominated first novel (1984) about coming of age on Edisto, an undeveloped strip of coast between Savannah and Charleston, is "a startling book, full of new sights, sounds, and ways of feeling. . . .The book is subtle, daring, and brilliant" (Donald Barthelme).
Padgett Powell’s first novel (1984) is about coming of age on Edisto, an undeveloped strip of coast between Savannah and Charleston, a “named but never discovered place in the South.”
Simons Manigault (“You say it ‘Simmons.’ I’m a rare one-m Simons”) lives with his mother, an eccentric professor known locally as the Duchess, who is convinced her twelve-year-old son can become a writer of genius. She has immersed Simons in the literary classics since birth and has given him free rein to gather material in such spots as a nightclub called Marvin’s R.O. Sweet Shop and Baby Grand.
At the center of Simons’s life on Edisto is an enigmatic character who tutors the boy in the art of watching the world without presumption. “Taurus,” as he is dubbed by Simons, acts as a father surrogate as well, taking his precocious young charge in stride. He leads him to, among other discoveries, his first prizefight, date, and hangover.
The way Simons sees the world will change radically when he leaves his ad-lib life among the denizens of Edisto for the private schools and tennis tournaments of Hilton Head, South Carolinathe territory of his father, “The Progenitor.” Using the combination of a child’s run-on phrasing and the vigorous prose and deft comic touches of a writer who is sure of every step, Padgett Powell established himself as a vivid new American writer.
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Foreword by Roy Blount Jr.
I love this book so much more than I do my stabs, so far, at introducing it, that I am tempted just to quote great chunks of the text, like the bit below. The narrator, after several provocative but inconclusive stabs of his own (brace yourself, in his shoes, for a bit of lore involving mayonnaise), reflects upon how he figures he will have to pick up, eventually, whatever he will need to know about sex:
. . . you can wait to know something like waiting for a dream to surface in the morning, which if you jump up and wonder hard you will never remember, but if you just lie there and listen to the suck-pump chop of the surf and the peppering and the palm thrashing and feel the rising glare of Atlantic heat, you can remember all the things of the night. But if you go around beating the world with questions like a reporter or federal oral history junior sociologist number-two pencil electronic keyout asshole, all the answers will go back into mystery like fiddlers into pluff mud.
The peppering is sand being blown against the house, the fiddlers are little crabs that skitter around on the beach. You can imagine pluff mud by the sound of the word. It just hit me, just now, how much all those sound effects, together with the rising glare of heat, are all anybody needs to know, or anyway sense, about sex.
Edisto is rich in sonic value, not only in the characters’ speech (three disparate examples):
“Say whah?” Very high.
. . .
“What choo worrit about?”
. . .
“Sock, balloon,” he said, in that kind of Jewish resigning whine they do on TV.
But also in how the narrative moves, how visual effects are almost sound effects and vice versa, as in this quick sketch of an air conditioner’s demise:
The first season, the first hint of a hurricane . . . that was it for the Carrier. Gihhhjjjjj POWmagnesium flares, house trying to hop up and run away on its stilts, transformer blown off the pole by the hard road (you could hear it), and no power for three days anywhere out here.
It will take you a while to get your bearings in Edisto, and that is appropriate, since the narrator, Simons Manigault, twelve years old, is trying to get his bearings. “I seemed to be snapping-to about one or two months late. I was a reader turning pages written some time ago, discovering what happened next.” This is a book about the reading and the writing of itself, but in a good way, a droll sort of way that is so organic you don’t have to think about it except, as I mentioned, it might help you get a grip on the issue of its bearings. It’s a book about growing up and living on a dying strip of America and about race relations and family relations. And Simons (pronounced Simmons) is a deeply likeable and reliable, extraordinarily non-emo, teller of his tale. His parents are estranged, alcoholic, promiscuous, and by no means conventionally nurturing; but he appreciates them. With reason, which he has the wits to realize. And he has the poise to hang, credibly, in an old-school African American dive.
If I were willing to drag you even more deeply into discourse less interesting than Edisto itself, I would go on at some length about other kids who serve as narrative foci of distinguished fiction: Holden Caulfield, who is mannered; David Copperfield, who is flat; and Maisie of What Maisie Knew, who is surely unlike any actual child even including Henry James himself when he was one, assuming he was. In his preface to that creepy (but in a good way) novella, James says a lot about freshness. Our boy Simons is fresh, and so is this book.
If I haven't mentioned Padgett Powell yet, I do so now belatedly. He is the author. He has been justly acclaimed. This first book of his was a great success (great as in oh yeah, not great as in some condescending heavy-handed unreadable unwittingly white-centric blockbuster such as The Help, to which it otherwise might invite comparison) when it first came out thirty-three years ago. As a writer I was envious of Edisto then and am envious of it now. As just myself the reader, I love going back over it, picking up on highlights anew.
The foot in the sweet potato. The not-just-period aptness, passim, of the word Negro. The elephant and monkey joke, goes by you if you blink. Renditions like thuther and roundbunction. The mullet-fishing set-piece, oh my God. Hemingway did fishing, yes. Melville did fishing, no doubt. And mullet has not gone entirely unheralded elsewhere in American letters. But no one, to my knowledge, has done mullet fishingby hook and wormslike Powell. It’s not the fish, not just the fish, it’s the people, and their ways.
This is the funniest damn book, and so adroit (“the Boy Act,” is it?), and so serious, so full of unforced heart.
Roy Blount Jr.
What People are Saying About This
"Edisto is a truly remarkable first novel, both as a narrative and in its extraordinary use of language. It reminds one of The Catcher In The Rye, but it's better -- sharper, funnier, more poignant."
"Edisto is a startling book, full of new sights, sounds, and ways of feeling. Mr. Powell weaves wonderful tapestries from ordinary speech; his people, Black and White, whether speaking to each other or past each other, tell us things that we never heard before. The book is subtle, daring, and brilliant."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Having spent a lot of time on Edisto Island, I was looking forward to reading this novel. However, I found it disappointing and lacking on many levels. First off, I cannot believe the author is an "award winning author" who also teaches writing at UF. It seems to me that he could have used a better editor because while I was reading it, I found much of the writing to be clumsy, difficult to follow, and not in any way enjoyable to read. Several times I thought about not finishing it, but somehow I soldiered through to the end. I think with proper editing, this could have been a novel that was more enjoyable to read... however, I still have issues with the fact that it does not seem the author was really familiar with Edisto and did not seem to do his research before writing the novel. As I read this, I did not get the sense that the author was really intimately familiar with Edisto. If he actually was personally familiar with Edisto Beach/Edisto Island, he did a terrible job conveying that. I felt as if the novel was written by someone who had never been there. (Of course, it is fine for an author to have never traveled to the place where their novel is set as long as they do the research and at least sound informed about the area!) A couple of examples of things that did not make sense: the mother drove Simon all the way to Savannah to go to an Episcopal church because supposedly there weren't any closer to Edisto that did "high church". This is silly because (1) There are lots of Episcopal churches in Charleston SC (40-48 miles away) that were established in the late 1600's & early 1700's when Charleston was settled by the British. The first churches they established were off-shoots of the Anglican Church of England, meaning they practice "High Church" (or "Catholic Light" depending on your viewpoint.) In the 1960's if one wanted to go to an Episcopal church with the full liturgy, priests in proper garb with full communion and all the fancy-pants stuff, downtown Charleston would offer this and be much closer than Savannah GA. (Downtown Charleston - 40-50 miles from Edisto beach, Savannah = between 115-130 miles from Edisto beach via Hwy 17 since I-95 was not fully completed at that time). I would expect an author who is attempting to write literary fiction to do research and at least be historically accurate. (I hold authors of "literary fiction" to a higher standard than I expect from authors of "popular fiction".) Also same thing with regards to Simon's school. It does not make sense that Simon was sent to public schools in Bluffton SC, which is 85-90 miles away from Edisto. It would have made more sense to have him going to school in downtown Charleston, which again is only 40-50 miles away. And again, these inconsistencies were not my only issue with the novel. Overall, it seemed very amateurish and did not flow well at all. Many times I had to re-read passages to figure out what the author was trying to say. And this was not due to dialect or slang - when I was growing up I spent a lot of time in the SC low-country and was exposed to all sorts of dialect & slang including Gullah (aka Geechie). Again, I just can't believe this was an award winning novel. The story could have been told much better than it was.
Well... I finally know what happened when they put those mythical 1,000 monkeys to write a book. They wrote this one. This book makes no sense at all. Put it down on page 20. Amazingly bad.