“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” —Sigmund Freud
Les Edgerton in conversation with a Trinity College Dublin graduate Kelly O’Brien:
—The Death of Tarpons takes the form of bildungsroman and is written in the first person narrative. Given that you also grew up in Texas in the 1950s, how much did your own coming-of-age play into the writing of the novel?
Les Edgerton: 100%. This is a fairly accurate account of my own experience that summer. It had to be fictionalized to better create the proper drama. Overall, most of the elements in the story are true to life. There are two elements present in every novel—an emotional element and an intellectual element. I would never pay any attention to the intellectual element-that isn’t the job of a novel. An emotional response is all I’m ever after and hopefully never in a surface or superficial manner, but in a deeper, psychological manner.
—The Death of Tarpons examines the notion of masculinity in the development of both Corey and his father’s sense of self. Would you say that masculinity pushed to its extreme – machismo – is a damaging force within the novel? What is the role of Corey’s grand-father from this point of view?
LE: Looking back in a deconstruction exercise is the only way I can answer this. This wasn’t a conscious effort on my part during the writing of it. It depends on your definition of masculinity. To my mind, the grandfather is the only true masculine figure in the story. The father subscribes to a cartoonish idea of masculinity, but Toast is honestly masculine. In fact, he’s so comfortable in his own maleness that he never tries to posture or play some kind of role formed by bad novels and bad movies. I would disagree that the father exhibits some form of masculinity pushed to its extreme. The father doesn’t represent any form of masculinity, but the grandfather absolutely does. One of the chief tenants of masculinity is the person being completely comfortable in his own skin and never considering how he might appear to others. That is the very definition of Toast and the very definition of masculinity.
—The women of the text are essential figures in Corey’s life yet it is the male relationships that are most often at the forefront of the narrative. Do you think that the women in the novel are integral or disposable? And why?
LE: All three women are important to the story, even if their characters don’t come across as disposable. The sister is a stock and stereotypical figure and certain disposable in the sense that she contributes little to the story, at least on the surface. However, she does, as she’s the one character that admires her father’s skewed notion of masculinity and mostly because he pays her attention and doesn’t judge her so long as she shows that admiration. The sister is the kind of female guys like the father are trying to influence and are the only kinds of females they value. The grandmother is little seen, but important in that she’s comfortable in her role as Toast’s wife. She’s the opposite of her granddaughter—she’s a real woman and doesn’t tolerate her son-in-law at all, but actually dismisses him as a man. The mother is crucial to the story because she has effectively abandoned her family for her religion. She’s the person Corey wishes would be on his side and in a normal family would be, but she’s missing in action. She’s simply a weak, selfish person. Her drug here is religion, but it could just as easily be alcohol, drugs, a shopping jones, adultery or almost anything else.
—I felt, as a reader, that cyclicality is an important theme in the novel. I’m referring particularly to the spatterdashes symbol. Was it intended as a meditation on the ways in which we carry the past within us?
LE: It was a literal symbol. As Toast explains to Corey, spatterdashes are an article of clothing that prevented spatter from being dashed on the man. It doesn’t get any more literal than that. In Corey’s case, they represented an heirloom passed down by the males of his family to look toward as something concrete that if he accepted the definition and the history, would see that they represented something that would prevent the crap his father tried to throw at him from besmirching his soul. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, and that’s kind of what these spatterdashes are, to him.
—Forgive my curiosity, but is the spatterdashes story autobiographical and if it is, do you still have them?
LE: The spatterdashes are the fictional part I mentioned earlier. They never existed in my life but they represent everything that Toast meant to Corey.
—The Death of Tarpons almost seems mythological in the manner in which the story culminates. Is it a metaphor – conscious or subconscious – for the mysterious, contradictory and sometimes frightening adult world?
LE: I suspect it may seem mythological in that Corey’s story is fairly common, albeit with varied circumstances. Most good stories are mythological in that they’re ageless and keep recurring over and over. And of course it’s a metaphor. Metaphor is what all stories are about.
—Is it significant that your first novel is a largely autobiographical coming-of-age novel? Was is the first novel you wanted to write or did it just happen to be published before another novel? What’s its significance in your development as a writer?
LE: It’s significant in that most first novels are coming-of-age novels. Probably close to 75% are even if they’re fictionalized as mine was. It’s what we know and what we’re comfortable with. And, often they’re unpublishable simple because of that. As one of my reviewers—Sydney Lea, former editor of The Georgia Review—said, “Leslie Edgerton takes one of the hoariest of projects, the family chronicle…”. I know it’s the kind of novel I saw from nearly all my freshmen students in university classes—autobiography disguised as fiction. There’s a reason it’s considered “hoary”… because it is. And most are dismissed out of hand. It takes a level of writing that most first writers haven’t yet developed. I had, which is why it got published.
It’s significant in that it gave me confidence that not only was my own life valuable material but that I had the writing chops sufficient for publication. Just about all of my fiction is autobiographical. I can’t think of any that isn’t.
“Edgerton’s later novels have become Noir classics to many, and THE DEATH OF TARPONS hints at a childhood that helps explain the author’s successful literary journeys into darkness.” —Jack Getze