"Ten Seconds," by Louis Edwards, 166 pages, Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minn., $8.95.
LOUIS EDWARDS' "Ten Seconds" is one of those books that suggest that in every life there is a novel if you can only find it. Edwards finds his novel in the life of an "ordinary" black man named Eddie.
Edwards hasn't sought to create a black Everyman. He's brought to life a real character, a man who lives and breathes and hurts like the rest of us. Eddie's life is like many others, but it's also unique to Eddie.
Eddie lives in New Orleans (so does Louis Edwards) and works at an oil refinery. He's married to a woman he loves named Betty. They have two children, a boy, Eddie Jr., and a girl, Tammy, for whom Eddie has to remember to bring some donuts at the end of the 10 seconds of the novel.
His married life is a little uneasy. Betty is a strong woman, perhaps a little too strong for Eddie. Making love at the beginning of their marriage was for him like "drowning himself in his private Caribbean." He foresees when Betty could become for him "a tepid muddy puddle of a woman."
Eddie drinks too much, smokes too much weed and sleeps with too many other women.
In the space of the "Ten Seconds" of Louis Edwards' book, Eddie tries to make some sense out of his life.
For epigraphs to his novel, Edwards has taken a line from James Joyce: "Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past," and a line from Bob Marley, "None but ourselves can free our minds."
Eddie's story takes place in the here and now, plunges into the future and recalls the past. At the end, he has perhaps freed his mind.
Edwards has cast his book in the form of the hundred-yard -- which Eddie has gone out to watch. Eddie identifies with the sprinter expected to win the --. He was a pretty good runner in his own right when he was younger. The girls liked his "pretty, fine black legs." Eddie's sexuality throbs through this novel like, well, sexuality.
Eddie watches the race during a kind of Proustian overture in which Edwards sounds the themes he will explore later in his novel.
Eddie has a kind of visionary flash like a Biblical prophet. He can envision the future and the past and the present all in one as the 10 seconds of the race tick off.
"He felt he was in the heart of a tornado, in the eye of a hurricane, and the chaos of his existence was spiraling around him. He was seeing colors, he was hearing whispers, he was raising his hands, snapping his fingers, kicking his left leg, staring out of windows, tying laces, opening doors; his soul was feeling warm, hot, cold, and warm again -- quickly.
"The feelings were precious and scary, and there was nothing he could do to stop them. Life rushed past the light of his mind's eye at the rate of so many frames per second. . . ."
Edwards then writes a chapter of Eddie's life for each second: :01, :02, :03, etc., etc. In a slightly out of tune footnote he warns, "All of timings herein were made using hand-held instruments and thus should be considered only approximate and unofficial." A mild joke, one supposes.
Eddie "sees" the death of his friend Malcolm in a horrible industrial accident. He recalls Malcolm's rich, true intelligence and the deepening of the bond between them as they grew up together. He mourns Malcolm.
He remembers the first time he made love -- to Betty's sister Coco. He "hears" Betty weep over her sister's abortion. He envisions sleeping with his girlfriend in his wife's bed.
He muses over Eddie Jr., who is not turning out to be the kind of person he wants his son to be. Eddie is "better" than his father, who used to beat up his mother. His son will be better than, but not much like, Eddie.
He dreams of turning toward the Gulf of Mexico driving home from work: "He would see wide-open water spreading to the south and to the east. He'd see ships with their sails rising against the sky . . ." He sees himself making that turn, and ending up in a ditch miles from home "drunk as a skunk."
Eddie finally comes to a sort of understanding with himself at second :10 -- "his freedom is here now. He can never be anyone else, and there is no need for him to try to be. He is, he does."
Louis Edwards was born and grew up in Lake Charles, La., and he's about the same age as Eddie in the novel. Edwards studied at Louisiana State University and Hunter College in new York City. He's got a degree in journalism. He's done public relations for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and at the JVC JAZZ Festival in New York.
His prose style in "Ten Seconds" is just about the antithesis of journalism or PR or the chicness of young contemporary novelists like Jay McInerny, Bret Easton Ellis, or Michael Chabon.
He experiments with a couple of devices, including a dramatic dialogue. But he tells Eddie's story mostly with what might be called a third-person interior monologue. And he writes sentences of Joycean length, which he wields with an admirably fluid ease.
Edwards has found his story in Eddie's ordinary life and he's fashioned from it a very fine novel indeed.