Monday, January 25, 2010

Five best: Pete Dexter's favorite fiction about families

Pete Dexter, whose novel Paris Trout (1988) won the National Book Award, is the author, most recently, of Spooner.

For the Wall Street Journal, he named his five favorite works of fiction about families. One book on the list:
by Padgett Powell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984

Here's why—I imagine—J.D. Salinger has never come out of hiding. From the moment "Catcher In the Rye" was published in 1951, every novel written about a precocious kid found some critic erroneously calling it the best book about precocious youth since "Catcher in the Rye." Then one day in 1984 Salinger—again, I'm imagining—had the bad luck to pick up "Edisto," by a young man called Padgett Powell, who had never written a novel before, and the next day the old recluse woke up feeling like Floyd Patterson the morning after his first fight with Sonny Liston. What Salinger would have seen when he opened "Edisto" was what Patterson saw when he looked across the ring into Liston's baleful eyes: the real thing. It's not just anybody, after all, who can write a believable novel about youthful brilliance. "Edisto" is the story of a 12-year-old named Simons Everson Manigault, whose sophisticated-beyond-his-years tone can't disguise how unfathomable he finds the adult world. The mysteries begin with his mother—or "the Doctor," as he thinks of this haughty college teacher—and his father, or "the Progenitor," who is no longer with the family. A mysterious stranger soon becomes the boy's surrogate father, teaching him about life using "one ounce of suggestion and pounds of patience." Padgett Powell is a writer of strange and original gifts. I just can't get over how little attention he receives from the thumb-suckers who sit around bemoaning the state of the arts in America.
Read about the other books on Dexter's list.

--Marshal Zeringue