[5 November 2003]
He is as entertaining as Reynolds Price isn’t.
Comment overheard after listening to Clyde Edgerton read from his new book, Lunch at the Piccadilly in Greenville, North Carolina
Few writers are able to create outstanding fiction and do a great road show. Clyde Edgerton can. He brings everything he’s got to his performances—both literary and on stage. Those who are fortunate enough to attend a “reading” by Edgerton frequently find themselves doubled over in laughter and wiping tears from their eyes at his quick wit, and tapping their feet to his singing and guitar playing. His band, the Rank Strangers, plays classic Edgerton-composed tunes like “The Safety Patrol Song” and “Fat From Shame” while he reads excerpts from his novels. It’s truly a sight to behold. Those who get the chance often come early and stay late when Edgerton’s in town.
Edgerton is a southern constant. In 1985, when he published his first novel, Raney, the story of a Free Will Baptist woman married to a liberal Episcopalian, Edgerton created, according to the Atlanta Journal, “. . . one of those rare volumes that causes uncontrollable fits of laughter and makes normally quiet, shy people read passages aloud.” Some of us have been appreciating Edgerton’s amazing wit and style ever since, in books like Redeye, The Floatplane Notebooks, Walking Across Egypt and others. Edgerton, a combination of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, is the quintessential southern storyteller.
His books and stories aren’t without controversy. Maybe Edgerton has always had the ability to turn a situation inside out and present it differently. Maybe he’s just tough and funny. Maybe some of that came from being an Air Force pilot in Vietnam and then going on to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Whatever it was, it gave him the edge over other a lot of other southern writers.
The plot of Raney got Edgerton dismissed from his teaching position at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina (a Baptist institution). You don’t screw with or poke fun at Baptists in North Carolina. Edgerton survived and lived to teach another day. He now spends most of his days in Wilmington, NC, teaching creative writing at the UNC branch. And he’s writing more of his here-is-the-South—take it or leave it—fiction.
Edgerton explains his writing:
I would say life is petty, and I would say that life is at times sublime. It’s certainly fun to write about petty things, and it’s fun to write about the sublime, if you don’t do it too directly. You hope, again, that you’re doing something on the page that a reader will respond to. While you can’t predict exactly how a reader will respond, you can hope for a kind of response. And the main response I hope for is pleasure. After that, it gets complicated.
In his latest novel, Lunch at the Picadilly, Edgerton sets his characters at the Rosehaven Convalescence Center in the North Carolina town of Listre. These are folks like L. Ray Flowers, a freelance evangelist who wants to start a national movement to unite nursing homes and churches (because of all the empty rooms during the week in churches), or—as L. Ray would call them—Nurches of America or Chursing Homes of the United States. There’s Beatrice, “the three-wheeled-walker woman,” and Lil, who has suffered a bad fall and must live in the convalescence center. Lil is cared for by her bachelor nephew Carl, who has “a heart of gold and the patience of a saint.” The story is centered on Lil, who gets bored and causes all hell to break lose in the convalescent center. Yes, folks, Edgerton is at it again.
When Edgerton came to town last month, we knew to arrive early. Rumors of standing room-only crowds had reached our ears. The rumors were right. We knew we were in for a treat as he started to read from Lunch at the Picadilly in a falsetto voice to mimic the main characters, a group of septuagenarian-plus southern women. He even got the facial expressions down pat. As the woman next to me exclaimed in my ear, “I ‘bout die when he does that. God, he’s funny.” Then Edgerton grabbed his guitar and began to sing “The Safety Patrol Song” which is written by two of the book’s main characters:
I’d like to be on the safety patrol,
Wear a clean white strap,
Shine my shoes and stand up straight,
And wear a sailor’s cap.
I saw Joe at recess.
He told me about his plan
To drop a cherry bomb down the boy’s commode.
He wants to be a dynamite man.
But I can’t be a dynamite man
Because, as I’ve been told,
If you drop a cherry bomb down the boys’ commode
You can’t be on the safety patrol.
Okay, it might lose something written out. Imagine pregnant pauses and a strumming guitar, a southern accent, and a smiling, congenial man, laughing along with the audience as he sings. Imagine, after the reading, elderly men and women, the focus of Lunch at the Picadilly, cutting in line in front of me to get Edgerton’s autograph. To talk to him, to tell him he had “Melba to a T” and “I swan, you just knew my mama, I know you did, that story you told about telling Lil she couldn’t drive any more, that was my Mama’s reaction.” Edgerton took it all in stride, said he didn’t want to offend anyone by writing a book about the humorous side of growing old, and he was reassured, many times over, that he didn’t bother anyone in the least bit.
Edgerton won’t provide readers seeking spiritual enlightenment with the light and the way. He’s much too flip for that. But, then again, reading Lunch at the Picadilly might just make you think about your Aunt Lizzie or Great Uncle Sam, or even your own parents. You might just see life a little differently. Maybe looking at life through Edgerton’s lens will provide insight and wisdom.
As Edgerton’s Beatrice says:
I love everybody. I think the whole world needs to change. I think there are too many companies. There’s too much business. And on the television, there’s too much interference with life. It’s like they turned loose a silly sideshow in every house in America. And besides all that, what you say you believe has nothing to do with how you live your life, and how you live your life is what Jesus watches. It’s the same with our country. We say one thing, but look at what all these businesses do. And it’s no telling what they do overseas where can’t nobody see . . .”