Edisto, By Padgett Powell

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The Independent Culture

The Florida-based writer Padgett Powell has been feted for a recent flourish of avant-garde novels: The Interrogative Mood (2009) was composed entirely of questions; You & I (2012) recounted a rambling philosophical dialogue between two old men. His 1984 debut, Edisto – published here for the first time in the UK – is more conventional but no less compelling.

Narrating is the splendidly named Simons Everson Manigault ("You say it 'Simmons'. I'm a rare one 'm' Simons"), a 12-year-old boy who lives on the South Carolina coast with his mother, a college professor and "pedagogic sot" known locally as The Duchess.

Convinced that the boy has the makings of a literary genius, she gives him writing assignments and allows him to roam the area in search of material. When his father expresses concern for his safety, she enlists Taurus, a mysterious paralegal, to accompany him on his wanderings.

The plot is rambling and episodic. What holds it all together is Simons's distinctive voice. His reading has outpaced his experience, and he speaks in a charming, half-understood vocabulary: "This was some of the strangest verbiage I ever heard"; "I don't want to get lugubrious … but we've had the most fun".

As the narrative progresses, however, he opens his eyes to life beyond books, and comes to master "the whole alphabet of worldly maneuver". His is a coming of age tale to rank alongside those of Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn.