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Mon October 13, 2003
Lunch at the Piccadilly
"We need a worldwide movement that will work to make churches and nursing homes interchangeable."
By Don Noble
Clyde Edgerton is without doubt one of the funniest authors working today. But, in his sixth novel, Lunch at the Piccadilly, he has chosen as his subject the nursing home: old, ill, crippled, even dying people. Is this funny? Can it be made funny? Yes, it can, and at the same time a thoughtful and respectful tone is maintained.
Carl Turbage is a good guy. A bachelor, he has seen his mother and one aunt through their final years and now his Aunt Lil is in Rosehaven Convalescence Center after a fall. Carl is an attentive nephew and Lil brags on him to her buddies:
"Don't you wish you had a nephew that would do for you the way this one does for me?"
"I got two nephews," says Mrs. Cochran. "They both work."
Aunt Lil has osteoporosis and her hearing is failing. Carl worries.
"Have you met Mr. Flowers, the new patient?" she asks.
"He's a dandy. The one with the knee operation," says Carl.
"Yes, the preacher."
"We talked a little bit the other day."
"Where did you see him?
"On the porch. You were with me."
On . . . .? Lil wonders "why he doesn't speak up."
"On the porch. When you were smoking a cigarette. You know if you'd let me take you to the hearing aid place, I think we could get you fixed up."
"I can hear okay. People's talking has just fell off some."
Glass eyes, though we mustn't say so, are intrinsically funny. Daniel Wallace never fails to put a glass eye in his novels and Edgerton is not to be left behind. Lil's friend Clara has one. The others wonder about it, and this "medical" discussion ensues:
"Does it stay open at night, do you reckon?"
Then they wonder why Clara's eye doesn't move more.
"I've seen them more real. They move and everything. It's like they put hers in but didn't connect it to any nerves that can turn it."
"Maybe they connect it to muscles," says Mrs. Satterwhite. "Nerves wouldn't be able to move it, would they?"
"Well, I don't know. They connect it to something."
Aunt Lil has two areas she feels strongly about. The first is driving--she really shouldn't. The second is her apartment. she wants to go home. She nags a little, Carl thinks. "There is some way he can't name in which he doesn't want her to give up. But in another way he does."
Also at the nursing home is the flamboyant white-haired preacher L. Ray Flowers, who has a very spotty past but comes up with the BIG IDEA: "We need a worldwide movement that will work to make churches and nursing homes interchangeable. Why do we need a church house for Christians to visit on Sunday mornings when we've got nursing homes for Christians to visit?
Christians sitting in churches while nursing homes sit around the corner is wrong. We need not two institutions such as these . . . we need one. And it should be called nurches of America." L. Ray Flowers also has a low opinion of foreign missions. "It seems like church members often have a desperate need to be unaware of the local needs of the local wrecks of local women stacked along the local grim halls of local nursing homes."
Is L. Ray Flowers a little batty? Even he thinks it might be possible, but after all, he tells himself, the Bible prophets were mostly old people, old folks, geezers, silvers, seniors. "Maybe we should pay more attention to older people in every way."
The Rev. Flowers is an inspiration. He helps Carl write some hysterical country songs (included in an epilogue to the book) with titles such as "Bologna, Bacon and Beer," and a number about the impossibility of writing a country song when things in your life are going well.
This novel cannot have, in the long run, a happy ending. All paths, glorious and otherwise, lead but to the grave. But Clyde Edgerton surely does give us a few laughs along the way.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.