Essays and Criticism
Padgett Powell Overview
Padgett Powell burst onto the literary scene in 1984 with his first novel, Edisto. A college chemistry major turned day-laborer and roofer, Powell nurtured his literary aspirations by reading American novelist William Faulkner’s works in his spare time and eventually enrolled in the University of Houston’s creative writing graduate program. In the words of Time critic R. Z. Sheppard, Edisto, which was adapted from Powell’s master’s thesis, showed that its author had ‘‘all the literary equipment for a new career: a peeled eye, a tuning-fork ear, and an innovative way with local color and regional dialect.’’
Critics have compared Powell’s technique to that of the great U.S. regional writers, including Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, J. D. Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, and Faulkner. Although he has been influenced by the styles of past writers, Powell’s mode of expression remains distinctive. Reviewing Edisto for the Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Yardley commented that much of the book is ‘‘so fresh and original; Padgett Powell clearly knows what he is doing, and he does it very well.’’ In a piece for the New York Times Book Review, Ron Loewinsohn similarly praised Powell, calling him ‘‘an extravagantly talented writer.’’
Named for the predominantly black, rural, backwater section of undeveloped South Carolina coastline near what the narrator calls the ‘‘architect-conceived, Arab-financed’’ Hilton Head, Edisto is a young man’s episodic account of his unusual coming of age. Simons (pronounced ‘‘Simmons’’)Manigault, the book’s narrator, is a precocious, prepubescent twelve-year-old trapped in a seemingly incomprehensible world—that of adults. Simons’s parents are separated and his college-professor mother, known among the local blacks as ‘‘the Duchess,’’ has decided that her only son should be a writer. Simons is no ordinary child. He is, stated Sheppard in Time, ‘‘one of the most engaging fictional small fry ever to cry thief: sly, pungent, lyric, funny, and unlikely to be forgotten.’’ In a review in Newsweek, Peter Prescott pointed to the ‘‘great comic effect’’ the author manages in his treatment of Simons: Powell endows his protagonist with a sophisticated sort of innocence that is at once poignant and amusing.
In return for his pursuit of literary knowledge, Simons’s mother gives him free reign to do virtually anything he pleases. Simons frequents the Baby Grand, a predominantly black local bar whose clientele has dubbed the youth something of a folk hero. Simons explains, ‘‘I am a celebrity because I’m white, not even teenage yet, and possess the partial aura of the Duchess.’’ The Duchess’s aura, however, is informed by her drinking and her promiscuity, both of which figure in her son’s development.
It is not until Taurus, the Duchess’s mysterious lover and Simons’s substitute father, enters the story that the boy, in a sense, becomes a man. Sybil Estess, writing in Southwest Review, dubbed Taurus a ‘‘blessed intruder into [the] story,’’ who teaches Simons how to live fully in the present. Taurus inspires in Simons the courage to move on without knowing what might happen in the future. ‘‘Something is happening, happening all the time,’’ Simons learns, and a life in Edisto is not what lies ahead for the boy. Taurus’s influence allows Simons to willingly accept the changes he is about to encounter. By the end of the novel, Simons’s parents reunite and the family moves to the cardboard world of Hilton Head. Taurus, having fulfilled his role as teacher in the story, exits Simons’s life as unexpectedly as he had entered it.
Powell’s pages are filled with the symbolism, colorful characters, and precise vernacular of past regionalist giants, but the young writer, as pointed out by Jonathan Yardley in his review in Washington Post Book World, has added ‘‘a new twist, and a most agreeable one.’’ Avoiding the trap of sentimentality, Powell addresses the highly developed and commercial ‘‘new’’ South of the 1980s, ‘‘finds it imperfect—but accepts it anyway.’’ An air of honesty permeates the author’s advice to readers living on the brink of the twenty-first century: the ‘‘best thing to do,’’ Powell tells us through Simons, ‘‘is to get on with it.’’
Edisto is ironic in its implication that one must learn the ways of the world in spite of one’s parents. But more than an examination of a youth’s rite of passage, the book, explained Peter Ross, writing in Detroit News, is ‘‘a masterwork of invention, and even more of intelligent feeling, of emotion tempered by sound thinking.’’ Robert Towers’s evaluation of Edisto echoed Ross’s enthusiastic response. Towers wrote in the...
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