By Clyde Edgerton
Algonquin Books, 264 pp., $22.95
Typically, Clyde Edgerton takes one to three years to write a novel, plugging away at it week after week, month after month, writing to find his characters, their voices, his point of view, and just the right setting. All along the way, he continually builds on the resonant and deeply human themes he returns to in novel after successful novel: the importance of speaking your mind, family relations, the struggle to find the "right" path in life, damaging dark secrets, death, the value of music and humor to a healthy life, and the hypocrisy of the religiously fervent. Unlike his previous seven novels, Lunch at the Piccadilly took Edgerton much longer to write (more than four years) because it struck much closer to home. That connection has helped him produce one of his most moving, satisfying and humorous novels.
In 1996, he had to put one of his closest relatives, a beloved aunt, into a nursing home--not an easy task under the best of circumstances. She died there in 1999. Soon thereafter, in 2001, his mother died. In the space of two years, while in the process of piecing together Lunch at the Piccadilly, Edgerton lost two of the three women who had helped to raise him (another aunt remains). Their stories--and ultimately their deaths--had such a profound impact on him and his writing that he decided to set his new novel in a nursing home as a way of exploring his feelings about them, and to offer some subtle and penetrating commentary on the plight of the elderly in America.
In Lunch at the Piccadilly, Edgerton returns to Listre, N.C., where we meet Carl Turnage, his aunt Lil Olive--who's recovering from a fall and has to use a walker--and the sweet-talking, sharp-tongued evangelist L. Ray Flowers, who spews forth his sermons with the rhyme and rhythm of a rap artist: "Now I'm a God-delivered, -sanctified, and -reformed preacher for the Wayward Traveler Map of Bethlehems, Buddha Gems, and Baptist Hymns." But for all his bluster and angling, L. Ray has a serious purpose in mind, "relieving the suffering of old folks at homes." And he aims to do just that. All three are tethered to the Rosehaven Convalescence Center, a place where Lil is living out what she terms her "life after life" and biding her time until she can return to her own apartment permanently (rather than merely "visiting" it from time to time with Carl). When this happens, she wants to do it driving her maroon '89 Olds. It's a trip she ultimately takes, but not home and not in her own car.
Rounding out the "regulars" on the porch of the convalescence center, where everyone gathers to pass the time of day, are Maudie Lowe, Beatrice Satterwhite, and Clara Cochran, who has a glass eye and, much to Beatrice's dismay, swears like a trooper. Other secondary but richly drawn characters (Anna Guthrie, a love interest for Carl, Mrs. Flora Talbert, who gauges a person's moral character by the shoes they wear, and Darla Avery, who's dying to share a dark secret with someone) move in and out of the story offering humorous takes on the world of retirement homes, or commentary on the ordinary lives they lead. Much of story takes place at Rosehaven, and it is through this setting and the character of L. Ray Flowers that Edgerton offers his most scathing but subtle critique on the plight of the elderly in America. L. Ray forms his new movement, "Nurches of America, Chursing Homes of the United States," to get some attention for his cause (and for himself), but Edgerton uses it as a serious suggestion to the religiously faithful that they need to reach out to some of those in their own communities who are most in need.
As he has done in virtually all of his other novels, Edgerton uses his finely-tuned ear for the individual cadences of Southern voices to bring his characters to life. He combines this talent to singular effect in Lunch at the Piccadilly with shifting narrative perspectives that allow him "to climb into the heads" of his characters, show what they are thinking, and in time reveal their basic humanity. Although such shifts can be tricky, Edgerton handles them with facility. He contends the risks involved in using such a device are well worth it, and absolutely necessary, if he is to accomplish the thematic goals he sets for himself at the opening of the novel. For this is the story of the "downward drift . . . and gradual failing of mind and body" of Carl's Aunt Lil, and through these shifting perspectives Edgerton traces the effects such a decline has on both the patient and her caregiver, something he manages to do with the sensitivity, humor, and compassion of one who has truly been there.
Edgerton says he chose to use the present tense throughout the novel as a means of connecting more directly with his characters, creating a sense of immediacy in the action of the narrative, and avoiding the automatic distancing that comes with using the past tense. He used this device to great effect in his debut novel, Killer Diller, and his return to it here accomplishes precisely what he set out to do. Walking in step with Carl as he takes Lil back to her apartment to retrieve some important papers, or riding along with Lil and her fellow inmates at the convalescent home as they exercise their freedom to drive one last time, are just two of the many side trips we get to take as Edgerton guides us through to the end of his powerfully affecting story.
Edgerton's long history with music plays a crucial role in this novel as well. He began with piano lessons as a child, graduated to trombone later, bass guitar in the Air Force, and then banjo and guitar. In the 1980s, he played with an R&B group and followed that with a stint in a Dixieland band. Today, he plays in a trio with two friends called Rank Strangers. In a fit of songwriting creativity, Edgerton wrote several tunes before he began to work in earnest on Lunch at the Piccadilly, and these songs, though only referenced by L. Ray and Carl periodically throughout the story, find their way into the novel in the epilogue. Edgerton says he wanted to "offer some hope" at the end of what is an inevitably somber ending. It seems to work here, but I couldn't help wanting to see them from time to time in the scenes in the convalescent center as a means of highlighting the music that is the bond between L. Ray and Carl.
In the end, Edgerton rarely if ever disappoints us in this novel. From the outset we are privy to the struggles that Carl and Lil endure as they make their separate but intimately connected journeys. They speak honestly to one another, care deeply about the welfare of the other, and ultimately find the peace and serenity most of us seek. Lunch at the Piccadilly gives Edgerton a vehicle to explore significant personal issues, and much more, with the wit and elegance that has marked virtually all of the work he has written.