By Padgett Powell
Henry Holt, $20
Reviewed by Peter S. Prescott
Because 12 years have passed since Padgett Powell's first novel, Edisto, appeared, you'll be forgiven if you don't remember the plot, but you're unlikely to have forgotten the 12-year-old narrator's extraordinary tone of voice. From the first page, Simons Manigault plunges into an artful free association, his run-on sentences chasing his run-on imagination. It's a bravura performance: the precise cadences of an extremely bright boy poised on the cusp of adolescence. We had heard such measures, in different keys, in the opening pages of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye.
The pitch of Simons' voice, subtly altered, dominates Edisto Revisited. It's foolish to claim that an author has accomplished something that hasn't been done before _ everything has always been done before _ but I can't now think of another sequel that picks up the earlier voice and ages it, adjusts it for the years and experience that have accrued since we last heard from the narrator.
It's now 10 or 12 years later. Simons has returned to his childhood home, a shack on a beach in South Carolina. He has a degree in architecture, but has succumbed to acedia: once "some species of a child poet .
. I detoured into meanness." The man who in the earlier book said his motto was "something is happening, happening all the time, and to watch it," is now fatigued. What's worth watching? What, if anything, is happening? Simons feels himself "teetering before careerhood. .
. Checking into Vecchio, Vecchio, and Cupola and making more buildings on our hallowed talked-to-death old ground" has no immediate appeal. For now, Simons is content to do what he does best: waste time.
At the shack he encounters his mother, a lady with a doctorate in English who has always a glass at her hand. "She's a drinker, not a drunk," Simons observes _ a nice distinction not often made these days. The mother has in tow Simons' 30-year-old cousin, Patricia Hod, "a madwoman with thoroughbred legs who could swim the English Channel." Like Simons, Patricia is hiding out from life for awhile; the very first night, the cousins share a bed. Powell's plot is as fundamental as plots come: Boy gets girl, boy loses girl (actually, he leaves her), boy regains girl.
No one reads the Edisto novels for plot; rather, they delight us with their attitude, their language. "It used to be a habit of mine, the boyish, untethered locution," Simons says _ but, no longer boyish, it's still his habit: For a young man with no ideas of what to do with himself, he's not lacking in sententious, magisterial pronouncements about life itself. Simons has no patience for the South's endless obsession with its past _ "The Wawer! The Wawer!" _ he cries, but then he has no particular interest in the present.
Edisto Revisited is about a refusal to engage. "Life," according to Simons, "is not prevailing. Life is letting those who insist on it prevail around you and preserving a measure of dignity for yourself on the fringe of the embarrassment. The meek shall inherit the earth if they can wait out the prodigious period of presumption."
Peter S. Prescott, for two decades senior book critic at Newsweek, is completing a biography of Alfred A. Knopf.