Originally published in 1984, Padgett Powell’s debut novel 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.” A finalist for the National Book Award, Edisto established Powell as a vivid new American writer. Catapult is proud to announce that this beautiful new edition is available in bookstores today, with this fantastic 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 POW—magnesium 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 fishing — by hook and worms —like 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.’s most recent book is Save Room for Pie . He is a panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me and a member of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.