Padgett Powell is a writer’s writer, with a spring-loaded imagination and a sense of rhythm and pace that can make his literary compatriots rock back on their heels in amazement at his mastery of craft. Writers (including Saul Bellow and Powell’s contemporary and fellow southerner, Barry Hannah) put him at the top of their personal lists of best American writers of his generation. They watch him carry off the best of the major awards, swallowing their envy, and wait to see what rabbit hole of invention his next work will carry them down. It’s been that way ever since Edisto (1984), his first novel.
Even the best of writers, of course, can spend a while wandering in the blooming and prickly desert of their own styles. In 2008, coming out of such a period, Powell created something of a literary sensation with a taut little work—beautifully designed, with an elegance and conciseness of wit perfectly matched to its unorthodox form—called The Interrogative Mood. Classified as a novel (but with a question mark), it contains neither characters nor plot—“Are your emotions pure?” it begins. “Are your nerves adjustable?” It then opens up a news crawl of random questions—ranging from the cosmic to the deeply internal, playfully silly, and utterly mundane—trundling through 176 pages
up to the end (“Does your doorbell ever ring? Is there sand in your craw?”). And if there is no named character, there is the questioner gradually revealed: down-home and mostly good-humored, broadly and intensely curious, his thoughts now and then laced with hilarity, reading like a wallpaper of old newsprint peeling off the inside of a soon-to-be-abandoned American mind.
Four years later, Powell’s latest work might at first seem not quite so acrobatic a stylistic feat as The Interrogative Mood. With its two nameless and indistinguishable characters, and single brief opening stage direction, You & Me reads like a play—the book jacket declares it a “Southern send-up” of Waiting for Godot. So what can one think of this author, then, except that he is no timid soul, for taking on what many view as the literary masterpiece of the 20th century?
And the match turns out to be a good one as, for Powell possibly as much as for Beckett, courage is the ongoing consideration. Not that this is the first thing you’re thinking of in the banter of his two “weirdly agreeable dudes,” sitting side by side on a porch somewhere along this country’s sunbelt rim, keen-eyed and sharp-witted, old enough both to recollect and have forgotten a lot, mellowed out on a ceaseless infusion of low-grade booze. Think of them as two very bright boys catapulted into Ivy League scholarships by their native intelligence, then drawn back by the pull of their roots to their backwater hometown. (In the movie, Tom Waits would have to play one of them, so perfect is he for the role that this writer can’t think beyond him to anyone else.) With a marriage or two behind them, and maybe a military stint, they relate to women in their imaginations, but in reality such relationships don’t matter much. When it comes to work, it has been years since either one of them struck a lick at a snake:
What if we called the Salvation Army and had them come over here and clean us out?
Like, strip the joint?
Take everything here except us and what we’re sitting on.
What would be the point of this?
I am not sure. Do you have any
I must. Somewhere.
Are you essentially alone?
Yes. It’s you and me. You and I.
It’s a moment almost of pure rigpa—the Buddhist idea of perfect seeing. But if truth is what these two old codgers are seeking, looking out over their rundown neighborhood—or as one of them calls it, “the broad plain of life”—facts remain relative in their shared contemplation of the Void. While off on a riff about an uncle named Studio Becalmed, who is said to have had an affair with Jayne Mansfield before dying in the Second World War, neither ever notices that the year the war ended was the year the voluptuous Mansfield turned 12.