Voice is the key to Powell’s first novel, Edisto. “You say it ‘Simmons.’ I’m a rare one-m Simons,” says Powell’s 12-year-old narrator and child genius, Simons Manigault. Simons is a real kid, a young pillar of sanity in the midst adult absurdity, whose voice is filled with self-deprecation, irony, and precocious questioning.
Powell’s characters are distinct in nature, but particularly in voice. Simons’ mother, the whiskey-soaked literature professor known to the local black people as “Duchess,” says wittily when the air conditioner goes out, “Honey, when I was little, we didn’t have all this. Just consider we’re going back through Margaret Mitchell’s wind.” Theenie, the temperamental domestic that worked in Simons’ home before Taurus came, speaks in half-English, half-Gullah, “Because iss onliness us here, He roundbunction, in trouble, fallin’ out of buses, ekksetra. All she wont is somebody to keep him right. Even she know that. And Law knows I do, I see enough of that in my own. Somebody got to hep that boy kotch up. He so far ahead he’s behine. Yes he is.” Powell’s use of Gullah, an African-American dialect, is original, humorous, and believable. One of the few versions that’s been done well. It’s Simons’ voice that rings truest, though, “So, it foundly occurred to me plenty was happening. That’s a childhood thing I said, ‘foundly’ for ‘finally.’ The best language is then. I knew a kid that called noses ‘noogs’ and knives ‘niges’ and a term like ‘big deal’ he shorthanded ‘bih-deel boing!’ – very fast with a blow of his fist on something like your head at the terminal sound.”
Edisto was a pungent, luxurious surprise after reading Aliens of Affection. By comparison, Edisto is near perfect. The world-weariness of many of those poor alienated characters was a bit laborious in Aliens, but Simons’ attitudes are so deeply odd for a child that Powell’s text reminded me of Mark Twain’s writings in its attention to the astuteness of children. What saves Simons from being just another emotionally retarded white kid is his Huck Finn perceptiveness. Simons’ keen perception of his world is startlingly fresh because he is a child and considers himself “protégé” to the Duchess.