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BOOK REVIEW: Padgett Powell

padgett powell southern lit

Reviewed: You & Me

by Padgett Powell

(Ecco, August 2012)

Padgett Powell’s latest book opens with a beautifully imprecise précis:

Somewhere between Bakersfield, California, and Jacksonville, Florida—we think spiritually nearer the former and geographically nearer the latter—two weirdly agreeable dudes are on a porch in a not upscale neighborhood, apparently within walking distance of a liquor store, talking a lot. It’s all they have. Things disturb them. Some things do not.

That’s the last we hear from the narrator. At least that’s what the novel reader in me wants to say. The narrator—the storyteller, the author—disappears, along with the exposition, leaving two nameless, hilarious, largely indistinguishable codgers to converse with each other for the rest of the book.

It’s the other reader in me—the parable reader, the play reader, the monologue reader, the essay reader—who says, no, the narrator, the storyteller, the author, has not disappeared. He’s just turned inward so we can listen to the voices in his head:

Are we free?
Insofar as no one is going to pay money to possess us, I deem us free.
Are we free to do anything we want to do?
Insofar as the better of those things cost money to do, I deem us not free.
But we are free to do the free things?
Yes, but we are afraid to do them.
What are we afraid to do?
We are afraid to be men.

The questions hearken back to Powell’s remarkable 2009 book, which couldn’t even state its subtitle without interrogating the genre: The Interrogative Mood: a Novel? In that book the reader encounters (answers, avoids, winces from, nods to, shakes her head at, hums along to) nearly two hundred pages of questions and nothing but questions. There’s an asking them—someone who sounds a lot like Padgett Powell—and he is insatiable:

Is exploring not merely peripatetic dungball rolling up? What about inventing? What about doing anything at all—is it not just making the dungball larger? My question then is, Should we make the dungball larger?

Though there’s not a purely declarative sentence in sight, the interrogator’s personality—his values, his sense of humor, his fears, and his yearning (and what is consciousness if not a knot of hopes and fears?)—unfurl paragraph by paragraph, question by question, turn of thought by turn of thought. The main difference in You & Me is that this time there’s someone answering the questions. In both cases, the experience brings to mind Phillip Lopate’s description of reading Montaigne: “[T]here is nothing to do but surrender to this companionable voice, thinking alone in the dark.”

That is why I can’t shake the feeling that You & Me: a Novel—like The Interrogative Mood: a Novel?, is a kind of essay.

For example, You & Me hauls out Big Ideas. Though Big Ideas seep through the characters and plots of lots of dramas and novels, Big Ideas take center stage in essay. Big fat abstractions of thought and logic—that’s the very stuff of essay. And what constitutes fiction’s bones, plot and setting, hardly exist in You & Me. There is a porch, but it is never rendered, never described or made palpable. The old boys sit on it (or maybe they’re standing; we don’t know) and merely talk of going to the liquor store, of going out “winderpeakin’” in the slums. But if they go anywhere, or get drunk, it happens off the page. We hear of it only after the fact, in reflection, that bailiwick of essay. It’s hard to argue that these two blatherskites are characters, at least not in the novelistic sense. They read more like Lopate’s “companionable voices.” They don’t even come into serious conflict with one another. These two geezers merely take stances. At most, they probe:

You would wish to be a man?
God no. Why do you ask?
Perhaps I misunderstood a complaint…
I do not wish to be a man. What you may have heard was my wondering how it is that I am not one, and do not care. This was at least my position at an earlier date.
It has advanced?
Yes, now that I have had time to reflect a bit, I see that the situation is really considerably worse.

Fittingly, these two aged voices, these two non-characters, each long to be men of character. Then they don’t. Then they do again. Then, if they don’t exactly long to be men, they consider it at length.

They talk about how one should live one’s life, then move to matters more pressing:

At some point we cannot keep sitting here proposing absurdist trips to the liquor store…. [W]e keep on with this blather, the want of testosterone, others knowing how to live but not us, and finally there is one of us can’t walk or something, do you realize that this can get ugly, as they say? …I think there is a point after which the jokes stop and we have to figure out how to die.

There is a choice to be made: To suicide, to save one’s “free dignity.” Or not to suicide, “and purchase the other, expensive dignity” of the nursing home, where one might find oneself drooling “in the wheelchair circle.”

The choice—or at least the consideration of a choice—is a climax, though it is not action that has led us here, but logic. It’s not that purely rational type of logic found in the five-paragraph essay, the painted corpse many readers mistake for the form’s only body. No, Powell’s logic is alive. This logic does not merely track and report. It invents; it renders the heart as well as the mind. It rolls up the whole dungball. It’s what writer and editor John D’Agata calls “a kind of logic that wants to sing.”

D’Agata is in the book pages a lot these days for his new opus, The Lifespan of a Fact. But it’s in an anthology he edited, The Next American Essay, where D’Agata makes the most elegant case for what has come to be known as the lyric essay. In short, D’Agata believes essay should fly the boundaries of nonfiction and dip its wings in fiction, myth, poetry, theater, and fable. Not only does he believe that it should, he makes a pretty good case in his 2009 anthology, The Lost Origins of the Essay, that the essay has always flown the coop—at least since Ziusudra of Sumer wrote c. 2700 B.C.E: “So first, don’t ever buy a donkey that excessively brays, for this is the kind of animal that will knock you on your ass.” Sounds like Powell to me.

It’s worth noting that Powell introduces The Interrogative Mood, the first of these lyric essay-like books, with an epigraph from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” an epic lyric poem that occupies the space between music and text, between the expressive and the rational. If the book following the epigraph is Powell’s song of himself, then perhaps You & Me is Powell’s song of his selves.

It’s a moving song, too, and by the time the pitch rises in You & Me, the reader cares. We care who lives and how he lives. We care who dies and how he dies. We care despite the fact that these two voices exist in some vague, unchanging interior. We care despite the fact that they remain faceless, nameless. We care despite the fact that the voices are those of cowards—fearful, drunk old men who like to winderpeek. If we’re not caring for two fleshed, novelistic characters, then perhaps we are caring for that head in which those two voices flutter and zing.

Don’t expect answers in this book: plot-wise, philosophy-wise, otherwise. “Lyric essays seek answers, yet seldom seem to find them,” D’Agata observes. The lyric essay is an imaginative, expressive attempt at something. In this regard, it’s best to let You & Me describe its own intent and its achievements:

I was just having an idea: A man and all his effects…is a sad business, you get right down to it. Grave to him, silly to the universe. He can’t get rid of the crap that weighs him down. He cherishes his ditty bag. He needs a house fire, of course, but he also needs a mind fire.

With You & Me, Powell lights it.

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