an appreciation

Posted: January 14, 2013 in greater writers than me

edistoMy history with Edisto is strange. In college, I quit after twenty pages. This was about the time that Padgett Powell rejected my submission, and I could not take his class. I was not above bitterness. In some cases, I am below it still. But I have read and reread this novel since then and would like now to share a few thoughts on the chapter “Doctor, Duchess, Soldier, Mother.” It suggests the construction of the novel and it warms my heart.

The chapter is a collection of anecdotes that you might call a patchwork or a younger reader (picture me in college, full of weed, hope, and stupidity) might find confusing. At least eight anecdotes make up this six-page section. All of them suggest a view of the narrator’s mother, who has four nicknames. It is perhaps not already obvious that the narrator has been confused about his mother. These anecdotes build toward a final assessment. They include: the Duchess purchasing liquor from the Baby Grand, the poor black bar; the Duchess racing her car to get her husband’s goat; the father (the Progenitor) giving him $20 as an “irregular” tooth fairy; the Doctor as still as a tree on the curve outside their home, smoking cig after cig; the soldier stealing a leatherbound edition of Horace for him; the Doctor kissing a cuckolded woman at a party in front of that woman’s husband and the cuckold himself; and the mother finding a proper husband for her son.

These are described in luscious physical detail. Here Powell is describing how both husband and wife used to run their cars ragged: “He’ll do that ratchet noise with the transmission, and the six-inch skid, and that’s all, while she’ll paint a Darlington stripe from here to Savannah.” Here the narrator sees his mother outside: “Anyway, one day during this time, I got off the bus at the hard road and just as I turned into our road one of the trees we have painted white to mark the curve moved. And smoked a cigarette. It was the Doctor, in white.”

It is the narrator’s mental dexterity and agility, captured beautifully, which tie these scenes together. Some of Powell’s techniques are simple. Comp 1 transitions move us from one anecdote to the next: “Anyway, one day during this time…”; “But I do think that’s when she became the Duchess”; “Well you can live with a Duchess easy, it’s the Doctor part can get you”; and “Also, she stole it.” They lead to a recognition of all his mother has done for him, arranging for him to meet the poor black men at the Baby Grand as well as father surrogate Taurus, finding a suitable father, and stealing that volume Horace outweigh the mom’s other craziness. Even in the kiss, he detects generosity. The theft in particular helps clarify the rest: “There are all these old books that she says will be sold for a quarter in a basement sale one day that she takes as she needs—now, not wholesale, but at need, like Indians and buffalo, which is strictly soldier. Anybody on the outside wouldn’t notice good soldiering in this, he would just see a stage mother in overdrive shoplifting, etc.” But he’s on the inside, seeing her clearly.

All this builds toward a powerful appreciation of his mother: “All through the liquor and leftovers and coroners and mendacity is this other string-pulling shadowy maneuvering of things, mostly for me” and, finally, “I realized now I sort of trusted her as the commander all along, the man in charge…” This trust, not discovered but recognized, is the boy’s real love for his mother, warts and all. People who say that sentiment has no place in fiction ought to read this passage and read this book. Sentiment is not melodrama.

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