Sitting on a green couch in Eugene Platt's living room, it's clear that he is not a man of subtleties. Looking around, we see what is important to Platt: framed photographs of family members ("That's my son Paul and his girlfriend"), a mantle adorned with crosses ("My friend painted this one"), and a barking corgi ("Henry is part of the family"). Oh, and those green couches and green area rug? Those represent the Green Party, of which Platt is a proud member.
At 76 years old, Platt is surprisingly agile, moving about his home, offering beer and cheese to guests, and pretzels for Henry, the dog. He pauses often in conversation, perhaps searching for the right word, but more likely searching for the right memory. Because he has a lot of memories.
Like the characters in his novel, Platt grew up West of the Ashley in the area that was formerly called St. Andrew's Parish. Platt served as a paratrooper in the army, studied in Dublin, lived in Washington D.C., New Orleans, and San Francisco, and in the past 10 years has been both widowed and married. His new wife, Judith, brought Henry into their home, educating Platt (and us) on the history of corgis. Apparently they used to herd cows, their short legs saving them from being kicked in the process.
St. Andrew's Parish is a coming-of-age story about Andy Bell and Bubba Bailey, two best friends growing up in 1940s and '50s Charleston. The novel follows the different paths their lives take, with each character borrowing some traits from Platt himself. The novel is chock-full of history — in fact it reads like a zoomed-in narrative of every bridge, waterway, and popular restaurant from Charleston's past. Platt calls the novel fiction, but we're inclined to believe that the chapters are personal stories shrouded in the cloak of a few made-up facts.
Told from Andy's first-person perspective (although often veering into omniscient narrator territory), St. Andrew's Parish follows the life of a Lowcountry boy who has it pretty damn good. The narrative voice is so clearly that of an older man, looking back on his childhood, that it is at times jarring to read lines like this from 15-year-old Andy: "At night it was always romantic, and frequent patrol by benevolent police kept it safe. Salt-scented, the late autumn air would be crisp, conducive to cuddling." Andy's trials and tribulations — and some trials even get as messy as college divorce and separation from a first child — are few and far between. He is resilient, as a paratrooper, as a college student, and as a civil servant. This resilience is at times unbelievable, at other times, sort of annoying (geez, Andy, get upset for once). It is, more than anything, a nod to Platt's life. Through Andy's eyes, Platt romances his own past.
"It is a novel of redemption," says Platt. The question becomes, redemption for whom? Platt has crafted two characters, both with troubling personal issues, both with strong faiths, and both with (sometimes) misguided convictions. Is Platt redeeming Andy, Bubba, Southerners, Christians, or himself?
Platt gets dreamy-eyed in his recollections, noting a "memorable meal" at Robert's of Charleston (an East Bay restaurant that closed in 2010), where the chef would sing for the dining room between courses. He references Robert's in his book, but the words fall flat. Again, speaking with Platt, you wish he had simply written a memoir. He is so deeply in love with Charleston that he wanted to share this world with readers. We can only assume he finds fiction more accessible.
"I ended up in Washington D.C. as a young man. Toward the end of 20 years, I was fixated on coming back. I took a significant pay cut to come back, and I've never regretted it," says Platt.
Platt is firm in his belief that Charleston is one of the best cities in the world. A prolific poet — poetry being his first literary love — Platt pays homage to Charleston in such poems as "Folly Beach Hotdogs" and "Main Crops, South Carolina." Platt's poetry flows with an ease his novel lacks, free-versing his way through childhood memories. "I often wonder/ what made them so great./ I guess it was the onions and mustard/ — and the sand, a grinding reminder/ to ten-year-old gourmets/ that with every bite/ we were devouring/ Folly Beach hotdogs."
Platt showed us his collection, Summer Days with Daughter, filled with poems dedicated to his daughter, Troye. The foreword is sweet and telling of a father's love. "Troye is the kind of person who picks up and adopts stray unicorns. She was four that foggy morning she looked out the window and asked, 'Daddy, did a cloud fall down last night?'" Like a fresh Folly breeze, Platt's honest memories stand in contrast to his less resplendent novel.
Platt continues to write poetry, and he has yet to decide whether or not he will write another book, although he says he often has new ideas for fiction. In what seems to be a fitting format, the Crabpot Players have plans to produce St. Andrew's Parish as a play.
Before we leave Platt's home, he leads us to the foot of his stairs, where a mural of a nude woman hangs on the wall above. "My daughter painted it," he says with pride. It is a beautiful painting, based on Gustav Klimt's 1899 work, "Nudas Veritas." "It means learn the naked truth about yourself before making decisions about other people," explains Platt. After years of writing poetry, and finally, in his seventh decade, penning a novel, we think Platt has come about as close to that ideal as anyone could.