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Aging gracefully

LUNCH AT THE PICADILLY

By Clyde Edgerton

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $22.95, 252 pp

Reviewed by MARY JANE PARK

We've all been there. Even if we haven't yet found ourselves with older kin at meals in a cafeteria someplace, we've observed others play out the scene. We've watched them carry the trays of their elders, take the dishes of baked chicken and Jell-O off the trays, set them on the table, park the trays and go after Aunt Margaret and Uncle Cal, who now totter toward the table, aided or perhaps impeded by walkers and canes.

The younger ones in the party, the middle-age wise guys, look for signs of failing health, sight, hearing, memory: Is she okay? Can he still live independently? What if I'm losing my youth? Which of course itself is long past.

Clyde Edgerton (Raney, Walking Across Egypt, The Floatplane Notebooks) casts his writerly eye toward aging in his latest novel.

The opening passage of Lunch at the Picadilly has Carl Turnage driving his Aunt Lil to the mall cafeteria in her '89 Olds. Carl is a bachelor, a contractor, his aunt's last surviving relative, and he has a warm spot for Lil, who occasionally let him drive her Mustang convertible when he was a teenager.

Aunt Lil has osteoporosis. She has fallen a few times, though she has suffered no broken bones, but the last one sent her to recuperate at the Rosehaven Convalescence Home. Aunt Lil expects she'll be driving again soon and back at home in her own apartment.

Carl's job is to break the news that she'll probably do neither, but he can't immediately get that point across.

In the following weeks and months, Lil does give up her vehicle and moves into Rosehaven for good. Another of its residents is an unctuous evangelist, L. Ray Flowers, who hatches a plan to start a nationwide unification movement between nursing homes and churches.

Growing older certainly is not for the faint of heart. Edgerton's characters are by turns determined, frightened and brave.

The tales of Aunt Lil's impromptu field trip off campus, the good preacher's real intentions and other Rosehaven adventures make Lunch at the Picadilly a fast read.

Better yet, Edgerton manages to make their story tender and funny without belittling the aged or their well-intentioned caretakers.

Mary Jane Park is a Times staff writer.

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