A few weeks ago I lauded Clyde Edgerton’s The Night Train, a beautifully-written, humorous novel about two boys, one black, one white, who perform rock and roll in a small Southern town in 1962. Jazz piano may be African-American Larry Lime’s ticket out of town, as he studies with a brilliant hemophiliac musician knows as the Bleeder; meanwhile, the privileged Dwayne, son of the owner of the furniture refinishing shop where the two boys work, learns the power of rock and roll through talented Larry Lime’s patient explication of James Brown’s “The Night Train.”
And this novel is truly a classic: if you reread it, you’ll find out how beautifully the surprising, occasionally digressive parts weave a harmony into the main narrative, inspired by James Brown’s version of “The Night Train.”
I wanted to read more by Edgerton. Today I finished Lunch at the Piccadilly, a feather-light, humorous, moving novel about residents in a nursing home. Edgerton’s spare style is deceptively simple, and there is much more to this fast-paced novel than meets the eye.
At the heart of the novel is Carl, the stolid, dutiful, unexciting, unmarried nephew of Aunt Lil, who frequently visits her and sometimes drives her and her cronies to the Piccadilly for lunch. Access to a car is freedom for the residents, who are otherwise stuck gossiping on the porch.
Physical and mental problems in old age sometimes commence with a fall. Carl remembers how Aunt Lil
“fell in her tub, twice in the same night. She managed, after the second fall, to get out of the tub and call Carl on the phone, and that night was the beginning of her downward drift, her gradual failing of mind and body, a decline less abrupt than his mother’s or Aunt Sarah’s.”
Carl keeps her apartment for her, though he believes she will have to stay at Rosehaven. Yet when they visit the apartment one day after lunch, Lil’s mind snaps into focus. She goes through files, competently removes war bonds to help pay for her care, and then, with Carl’s help, looks for her sensible shoes. Suddenly she wants to vacuum. She won’t use her walker, so Carl holds her by the waistband of her pants while she does a little vacuuming on the balcony.
And this scene struck a chord, because I went through the same thing with my mother. The last happy memory I have of her was the last day we took her to her house to pick up a few things. She looked immensely satisfied, as she ordered me to vacuum the living room–I did a very good job, because I wanted her praise– put a few clothes in bags, and then tottered outside without her cane to pull weeds. I quickly ran out with a chair for her, and distracted her by asking what size clothing she needed now that she had lost 15 pounds (and was dangerously anorexic)… She kept looking at those weeds, though.
Edgerton, who has been around the block a time or two with aging relatives, has an intuitive understanding of their emotional situation. In one hilarious scene, Carl takes Aunt Lil and Mrs. Cochran shoe-shopping at the mall. It’s a bit like junior high: Mrs. Cochran insists on high heels, and Carl, like a heavy father, has to steer her away from dangerous heels towards slip-ons. Ironically, Carl always wishes that Anna, the social worker who wears sensible shoes, would wear high heels. Too bad Mrs. Cochran doesn’t have Anna’a common sense.
Carl’s Aunt Sarah told him before she died that giving up driving was the worst thing. Because of this, Carl has trouble telling Aunt Lil she can’t drive anymore, even after she takes off on a hair-raising adventure in a stolen car.
There are other vivid characters in the novel. There’s L. Ray Flowers, a preacher, who wants to start a movement to turn nursing homes into churches–nurches–so the residents won’t be lonely anymore. He is also a songwriter and teaches Carl to play bass. Carl starts writing lyrics: the songs are in the back of the novel.
There are Carrie and Latricia, two aides who eat lunch together and talk about the patients.
And there’s Anna, the social worker whom Carl has a crush on. She agrees to go out on a date with him, but will the relationship go anywhere? Carl is nervous on their first date.
It’s a funny, sad, touching novel, about old age, caretakers, kindness, nursing homes, exploitation, and occasional injustice. I laughed out loud at some scenes, cried over others.