Padgett Powell's Porch Wisdom

From left: Ben Williams; Margaret Houston
by Jonathan Miles - August/September 2012

Life, death, flying dogs, and a walk on the wacky side with one of the South’s most distinctive voices

Three years ago, with the publication of a book entitled The Interrogative Mood, Padgett Powell made a very unlikely comeback. A “comeback,” that is, because Powell—whose 1984 debut novel, Edisto, was a National Book Award finalist likened by Walker Percy to The Catcher in the Rye (“but it’s better”)—had been unable to publish a book for almost a decade. Not that he hadn’t tried. But as Powell had veered further away from the cuddly realist mode of Edisto, and deeper and deeper into what he’s called “wacky mode” (his much-ignored 2000 novel, Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men, was a meditation on manhood and the Confederacy disguised as a grocery list, or maybe the other way around), critics and readers and finally publishers had drifted slowly away, scratching their heads. As to the “unlikely” part, however: The Interrogative Mood, which was a critical and commercial hit here and abroad, was composed entirely of questions, a whole lot of them head-scratchingly wacky (“If you were to participate in a spice war, what spice would you fight for?” being one).

All of which means, of course, that Powell himself didn’t come back—his audience did. Or a new audience sprang up, enthralled by Powell’s derring-do and uninterested in shackling him to the original recipe of his earlier work. Either way: Huzzah. The presence of late-model Padgett Powell books in bookstores is a blessed and overdue development (especially in light of the recent deaths of Barry Hannah and Harry Crews, two of Powell’s aesthetic bandmates). We’ve never needed him more.

Powell’s latest, You & Me (Ecco Press), is no less daring (and wacky-mode) than The Interrogative Mood: It’s composed entirely of dialogue, or rather, of assorted dialogue snippets that sometimes overlap, sometimes don’t, and sometimes make your brain dance in ways you never thought it could. There is no plot whatsoever—not even the MacGuffin of a plot that Godot provided for Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the obvious antecedent here—and, in a sense, no characters either. Just two voices, indistinguishable enough at times to be derived from one person, torting (as they themselves might say) and retorting on a somewheresville porch that we understand to be located within walking distance of a liquor store and a fishable creek. They’re old guys, though not so old they can’t heap scorn on “codgers,” and definitely not upscale guys (we’re led to believe there’s a washing machine accompanying them out there); I was occasionally put in mind, not uncharitably, of Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show, outfitted in holey T-shirts and torn BVDs and transplanted to a rickety porch. Or of the raconteurs from Barry Hannah’s story “Water Liars,” were we to follow two of them home to eavesdrop.

Mostly what they are is loquacious guys. “What would we do if we did not talk?” one asks, before concluding, “If we cease [talking], we do nothing, are nothing.” (The other’s rejoinder: “Given how little we talk about, we are next to nothing already.”) Among the subjects under discussion: Jayne Mansfield, etymology, hemp-oil suppositories, the nature of freedom, whether a bull has in fact ever invaded a china shop, the tempting perils of nostalgia, visions of hairy turtles, the existence of miracles, the recycling of split-shot sinkers and what this recycling reveals about one’s character, magic lingerie, environmental degradation, and the point of it all. Oh, and flying dogs, as in this self-contained excerpt:

     I’d like to see some flying dogs.
     Are there flying dogs?
     Not that I know of. Seeing some would improve my mood tremendously, though.
     I suspect it would. Mine too.
     Cheer us right up, flying dogs.
     Raining cats and dogs.
     Like to see cats bouncing off cars.
     Why’d they call combat air battles “dogfights”? 
     They wanted to see flying dogs too.

You should approach You & Me as you would approach a recreational drug: with plenty of time on your hands, and in a safe location where no one will throw scowls your way for openmouthed bouts of metaphysical awe spiked with bursts of giggling. There’s a hallucinatory brilliance at work here, in the funky meter of the prose (the voices go skidding willy-nilly from slyly Faulknerian grandiloquence to clipped, almost vacant-sounding banter), in the shrugged-off wisdom, in the exquisite absurdities of the vocal interplay, but, most of all, in the improbable and covert way that Powell cracks your heart. This is comedy, to be sure, but like all great comedy there runs through it a deep blue vein of melancholy: wisecracks hurled against the abyss. “We are not yet dead,” one says. “Not yet,” the other replies. “At some point we will stop joking about it and become afraid.” Until then, they have only each other, their respective antidotes to not just death but life—to the bitter prospect of facing either on their own. “Are you essentially alone?” one asks. “Yes,” comes the reply. “It’s you and me. You and I.”

Tags: Books