“To hell with the critics.” So Simons Manigault (“You say it ’Simmons.’ I’m a rare one-m Simons”), the twelve-year-old narrator of Edisto, dismisses the usual indirect method of learning about any “text”—whether a book, a mind, or, as in this case, the female body. Seldom has this advice made more sense than it does with regard to the novel in which it is given. Edisto, Padgett Powell’s first book, is one for which the worn-out word “magical” is exactly the right one. Powell presents—and one need not fathom his methods to appreciate the presentation—memorable characters and a vivid world in a style vigorously eloquent. One lesson the book’s protagonist comes to learn is the futility of attempting to explicate a mystery, the folly of the direct analytic stare that dissipates iridescence as surely as landing a rainbow-colored fish will dull it. Just so, the verbal enchantment that is Edisto most fully emerges when the book is read, not merely read about.
This disclaimer having been offered, on with the analysis, for Edisto deserves critical notice only less than it deserves reading. Despite its great originality, the book fits neatly into a popular and perennial category of fiction, the long and generally eminent line of firsthand accounts of growing up in a particular milieu. Edisto has been compared, and with justice, to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), in large measure because Simons is, like Holden Caulfield, an articulate, engaging, privileged child-man who is awash in transition. Padgett Powell himself speaks of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884) as a closer relation. Simons does combine Huck Finn’s native wisdom and verbal flair with Tom Sawyer’s lively imagination and gentility-in-spite-of-itself, though Taurus, his racially mixed “podner,” is no innocent Jim but a suave, strong, subtle guide to life, a figure “shimmery as an islander’s god and solid as a butcher.” Instead of Mississippi River bluffs and bars, Powell has conjured up Edisto (a note on the copyright page identifies the locale and supplies the correct pronunciation of the title), a scruffy area of the South Carolinian coast as yet unimproved by developers. Simons’ domain is an Eden of sand and wind, deerflies, fiddler crabs, scrub oaks, palmetto thickets, and steep coquina beach, with a Big House (the Manigaults’ Savannah Cabana, an octagonal beach residence intended as a builder’s prototype but in fact a monument to his failure), a shack (one room of tightly packed possessions arranged by Theenie, the Manigaults’ domestic), and a dive (the Baby Grand, where low-country blacks gather for “Slitz” and chicken wings).
Much of Simons’ growing up takes place on Edisto, but much takes place away as well. His parents, an English professor (“the Doctor” to her colleagues, “the Duchess” to the locals) and a lawyer (“the Progenitor” to his son), have quarreled over the boy’s upbringing—which will predominate, books or baseball?—and noisily separated. Destined by his mother to be a Great Writer (the narrative of Edisto is one of her assignments), Simons spends much of his time as the introspective and observant lord of the island, but he is also a growing boy with normal instincts and interests. These and his circumstances take him elsewhere: to the local public school; to the Baby Grand, which he frequents as an underage pet; to Charleston on custody junkets. A stranger, later to be called Taurus, arrives to serve a paper on Theenie’s daughter, thereby frightens off the law-shy domestic, and succeeds her as tenant of the shack. Thus fate gives the intermittently fatherless boy a new mentor—a man proficient in pugilism and romance and holding his liquor, a man who can adjust to a white faculty party or a black nightclub, most of all a man who can watch and listen without forcing experience into a pattern or freezing life in a frame. The inner calm Simons observes and admires in Taurus and...
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