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.
And if a landscape of ultimate human loneliness is where the characters of Powell and Beckett intersect, the Didi and Gogo of You & Me never slip into a Beckettian whine. In an online interview, Powell shines a possible light on this difference, in his account of the origins of The Interrogative Mood. According to its author, the interminable list of questions was never planned as a novel, or presented to a publisher as one, but began as a sort of absurdist response to some of his email, and possibly as a way of writing himself out of depression. When it had reached a substantial length, he sent it off to the Paris Review, where he had been previously published, but without any thought of it as a finished work. Sometime later, an editor who had left the Paris Review for a larger publishing house presented Powell with plans for the book as a fait accompli.
A quintessential storyteller, Powell mentions no further effort in the form of revisions or shaping of the work, maintaining the surprise acceptance as a moment of grace to warm the cockles of any struggling writer’s heart. Underlying the success of The Interrogative Mood, though, is the point that for all its apparent randomness, the book is no one-trick pony, but a cadence-rich work, resonant with recurring themes right up to a final musing on Jimi Hendrix and what the reaction might be if he were to walk into the room. And then there is that irascible ending:
Are you leaving now? Would you? Would you mind?
Ruled by the rhythms of the banter filling each of its short scenes, You & Me is almost as storyless as The Interrogative Mood. But dip anywhere into the earlier book and, however whimsical or ironic or terse its questions become, there is a sense of aloneness as stark as a night spent isolated in a dinghy on a roughly undulating sea, with the sky split by lightning and water sloshing in over the gunnels. You & Me—as musical and as existential as either it or Waiting for Godot is in its preoccupation with ultimate concerns—is also, in a sense, the author’s answer to both. Born into this raw new century, though, Powell’s Beckettian offspring wait for no one. And if, in their cosmic landscape, they are no more free of anxiety than their predecessors, the way these dudes choose to face the fraught human condition is through a perfect dialogue.
Argumentative, but cheerfully so, in a low, backwoods-holler vernacular flecked now and then with a touch of high academia, and advancing toward better agreement on point after point, they arrive time and again at the perfect harmony of “we.”
Edith Alston is a writer and editor in New York.