A terrible thing happened to Padgett Powell in the years after the release of his first novel: he was awarded tenure. Powell is completing his third decade at the University of Florida’s MFA program, which he currently co-directs. State-supported job security has allowed him to write as he pleases, with decidedly mixed results. He likes to experiment, a residual legacy, perhaps, of his stint as a chemistry grad student.
His last novel, The Interrogative Mood?, was made up entirely of questions, an uncommercial venture that reaped critical dividends. Now, in his latest take-it-or-leave-it anti-narrative, he serves up heaping helpings of vagabond dialogue between a pair of stagnant fogeys discomfited by the comforts and cautions of modern life.
In You & Me, the unidentified interlocutors — “two weirdly agreeable dudes”— generate more chatter than a terrorist website. Profundity and banality are granted equal time. This is the place to go if you’ve ever wondered how to properly insert a hemp soap suppository. The less anally inclined will have to settle for, among other things, the Iraq war, Tarzan, fishing, bonbons, ex-wives, Miles Davis, The Wizard of Oz, diminished manhood and encroaching death.
Clearly, Powell is indebted to Waiting for Godot. Herein existence is reduced to an oxymoron: active inaction. Like Vladimir and Estragon, Powell’s clowns wonder if they should stick around or throw in the towel. “Let’s go down to the creek and stare Despair down,” one of them says, an ornerier counterpoint to Estragon’s suggestion that he and Vladimir hang themselves.
Powell shows little interest in plot and character development. Such was not always the case. When he was starting out, he immersed himself in realism. Edisto, his attention-grabbing debut, was a fairly standard coming-of-ager about a precocious white Southern teen adventuring along the South Carolina low country in the early 1970s. The language, however, set it apart from other Twain/Salinger knockoffs; its sentences acted like smelling salts, rousing the reader from his cliché-ridden stupor.
Since Edisto, Powell’s work has become harder to categorize. He seems content with befuddling publishers and indulging himself. But hopefully he won’t be remembered only for stunt novels. Powell may be the finest unsung stylist in America; there is a reason Saul Bellow dubbed him the best writer of his generation. He was young then; now he is 60, and Bellow’s prized blurb can no longer appear on a book cover without provoking pitying comment.
This is not to say that You & Me lacks reward. Powell’s sense of humor remains gratifyingly intact. “Live every day of our lives as if it’s the last day of our life,” Codger A counsels Codger B. “Let’s see, that’s LEDOOLAITLDOOL. It sounds like a Mayan god.” As for the women who bore us: “God, in His infinite wisdom, has seen to it that our mothers do not chew on us when we are infants but wait until we are older and can take it.” And this is something that might have sent Dorothy spinning back to Kansas: “I want to see the Tin Man tell the Scarecrow he’s too soft and the Scarecrow tell the Tin Man he’s too f------g hard.”
Unfortunately, Gertrude Stein was right when she told Hemingway that remarks were not literature. Perhaps the moment has come for Powell to lay down Donald Barthelme’s mantle. Barthelme was Powell’s mentor. A great parodist and wisecracker, he taught Powell that a story didn’t have to be common-sensical. True enough, but Powell could surprise us all (and himself too, probably) by paying a visit to his creative roots and rediscovering the benefits of accessibility.
One would like to show him the scene in the film Adaptation when Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) attends a writing seminar conducted by Robert McKee (Brian Cox). Kaufman asks McKee about the possibility of writing a story “where nothing happens, where people don’t change.” McKee screams obscenely at Kaufman, reminding him that the world is full of drama. “If you can’t find that stuff in life,” he says, “then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!”
Padgett Powell knows a lot of crap about life. Some of us would just like to see it transmuted into rebelliously conventional prose.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.