All Talk

Four years back, while visiting the University of Florida to check out their MFA program, I had the opportunity to meet the novelist Padgett Powell, who teaches fiction there. I did not make good on this opportunity, however, and I now find that regrettable, considering Powell is one of the last of the mythical old guard of sly Southern bourbon-barrel novelists, a stream that I suppose started with Twain, runs through Faulkner and Percy and continues on down to Charles Portis and Barry Hannah and Larry Brown and the like. This missed opportunity is all the more regrettable to me now that I’m slated to write this review about Powell’s latest novel, You & Me, a book that eludes conventional literary value judgments—of good and bad, of meaning. It’s a book that’s not necessarily “good” but definitely is “awesome”; a book not necessarily concerned so much with meaning as it is with wisdom. Which raises a whole heap of questions about aesthetics and ontology and what a book’s supposed to do—or what a book can do, for that matter—and presents such a cast of problems when it comes to trying to write a fair and honest review that I really wish I had some sort of anecdote to help get this thing framed the right way. A personal encounter with the author in his self-selected professional environs would be just the thing to get me rolling here, wouldn’t it?

But I didn’t wait around to meet him on that trip. At the time I had no idea who living literary legend Padgett Powell was—though that didn’t stop me from acting like it. At the time I had no idea what serious writing was, either. (The Florida MFA program knew this, too, and later that year perfunctorily denied me entry.) The story I’d submitted with my application was a fifteen-page comedy about a redneck father and son (Larry and Lil’ Larry) who steal an ostrich from a nearby zoo and start up a sort of zoo circus in their back yard. But maybe the MFA admissions panel didn’t even have to read it. Maybe they simply knew I was the guy who visited that fall pretending to know exactly who Padgett Powell was, claiming to have read “a lot” of his work, even The Interrogative Mood, which at the time had only been out for a couple months, and moreover, knew I didn’t even want to hang around long enough to disabuse myself of this unfamiliarity. So the problems with approaching this review today, four years down the road, are in fact the second consequence of my ignorance.

Though after three years of living in rural middle Georgia, studying fiction under and with indigenous Southern writers, I now know about Padgett Powell. He’s produced a slim volume of highly acclaimed work—You & Me is his sixth book—beginning in 1980 with the beautiful, sharply poetic Edisto (which Walker Percy likened to Catcher in the Rye, “but better”), set in coastal South Carolina and narrated by a precocious twelve-year-old. Powell later studied under postmodern doyen Donald Barthelme (mentioned by name in one of the epigraphs to You & Me). After Edisto, Powell’s novels took a turn for the unconventional, an outward swing that culminated in 2009’s The Interrogative Mood, a weird, ambitious novel comprised entirely of hundreds, thousands, of questions, in no strict sequence, with no plot, no setting, and no characters—unless you count Powell himself as interrogator, and you yourself, the reader, who must either answer the questions, or make a serious highly conscious effort at not answering them—a book which, as you can imagine, has its detractors and its devotees, both equally fervid. Powell acknowledges the difficulties that his more recent work presents, and he claims (mostly jokingly, I feel) that he’s now “virtually unpublishable.” But You & Me, though highly experimental, lofty, philosophical, and utterly devoid of plot, is, as mentioned above, awesome.

The novel’s premise is this: two guys talk on a porch. That’s it. Unattributed, non-quoted dialogue—even by the characters’ own measure their voices are “arguably indistinct”—following a lone bit of exposition in the preface, which, apparently for Powell, is all you need to know:

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.

The publisher pitches it as a sort of Southern pastiche of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play, Waiting for Godot—the note that came with my publisher’s copy says “there may be an undertow of Beckett”—which about nails it. This novel and its voices are unmistakably Southern; here is their own description of their place:

That creek. It has orange shit in its shallows that is not shit but that conveys every impression of sewage that can be conveyed. It looks like rusted cotton. There is not outright mud but dirty sand. Not outright water but enough to support seven minnows…and no water bird but a flyover by a depressed songbird just keepin’ on keepin’ on…Add a rubber or a Fritos bag, maybe a purse, and you about have it. A pair of panties. This is where we are.

This book is that depressed songbird, flying over a rusted cotton creek. And in this sense, Powell is actually one-upping Beckett—where Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon had names and a purported reason, however specious, for their inaction, Powell’s anonymous dudes are just keepin’ on keepin’ on, shooting shit of varieties by turns absurd and worldly, regional and grand, of Allman Brothers and Hellenistic conquerors, lard-and-hair sandwiches and the sound of wide water. Their dialogue is punchy and profound, vulgar and poetic, but ultimately and awesomely, purposeless. If you think this sounds stupid, if you demand plot or something approaching physical movement from your characters besides hypothetical liquor-store runs in borrowed prison jumpsuits, then don’t read this book. But if that is the case, I think, at least in this specific instance, you’re seriously missing out—if you don’t get this book, then you just don’t get it. And by “it” I mean “anything.” (Looking at you, New York Times Sunday Book Review.) Powell is a hell of a writer—these old dudes are sharp and funny, ribald is certainly the word—and the ultimate concerns of this purportedly absurdist novel are anything but inconsequential.

The primary appeal of the book is simply being let in on the conversation. At first it’s the entertainment value: the riffing and arguing, the jokes, turns of phrase—“Should I deny that I have a poor attitude? / Anyone with a proper attitude would deny that he has a poor attitude”— the high-level philosophizing at a whiz-bang rate. This conversation rolls and winds for 200 pages, Mississippian in nature: sometimes a river, sometimes a trashy creek, at times bending back on itself, and often leaving little lakes that pool behind, oxbows of wisdom: “Can the deformed see their deformity? / The club foot yes, the club heart no.” The dudes discuss the golden days of Hollywood, nihilism, Lynyrd Skynyrd, how best to live, the gopher tortoise, and their inexplicable disdain for coasters; they grapple with the terrifying reality of nostalgia, the objective correlative (of good ol’ “Trouser Snake” Eliot), sex and love and life under “the constant roiling soft purple cloud of divorce”; then they’re on to infinity, etymology, Jesse Owens, Tarzan, stove knobs, etc. I’m honestly tempted to thumb through the book and just fill the rest of this review with lines taken at random. The dialogue is that irresistible. And that addictive. The short, snappy chapters pass almost like YouTube clips, as quotable as any ad or viral video, a parallel which, I suggest, isn’t coincidence—at one point, a character mentions having recently watched a “clip” of some flamingos walking through water. Powell has created a virtual world that in many ways mimics a typical Tuesday evening online sortie: a spiel of information leaping manically—yet idly—from banality to enormity and back, these two dudes themselves arsenals of info, dallying a while here, hyperlinking there, the book’s pages appearing sparse and fleet, as any literal representation of our virtual wasteland would. The distinctive experience of absurdity in this book should be familiar to anyone who finds both comfort and anxiety in information, in dicking around on the ’net. Which, again, is all of you.

Soon enough, however, I was beyond entertainment, and taking genuine comfort in the conversation—in the way I find comfort in the sensitive but certain intellectuality of David Foster Wallace, of being granted the privilege to pretend for a while that I’m this smart and this large-hearted and this curious—and I would pick the book up to, as one dude says, “revel in our not knowingness.” The Times argues that this isn’t enough, that the truffles of wisdom, the “breezes” of Powell’s lyrical genius (a genius evident from page one), aren’t enough to lend the novel a proper gravitas or whatever, and that this leaves us readers with a thin, ephemeral, and ultimately forgettable experience.

But these two dudes assail in earnest the formidable mountains of nostalgia! Their conversation is a river of Everest-level snowmelt, carving a canyon between absurdity and profundity! The book is, in the end, an elegy for our absurd age—senseless and harmless and useless, the great tragedy of knowledgeable failure. Of course the characters fail. And so, in a sense—and this is by far the best, most brave part of the novel: it fails. And it must. Because that’s the point. Some reviewers have held that because of its unevenness and its trivia, the book doesn’t matter. Fair enough. But, as the dudes say, “A child says nothing matters, but it takes an adult to say it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.” The book’s failures are all under Powell’s control. It was never meant to “succeed” in the first place. After all, the chief tenet here is that these dudes—that we, that you and me—are not meant for success, either.

“Well, given how little we talk about, we are next to nothing already.”

“I dispute you not….I am content to be nothing. It might be argued, for example that a secretary of defense talks about matters that are far from the nothing end of the gravity-in-talk spectrum. I would rather we talk as we do than as secretaries of defense.”

And later:

“Yes, we are outside the gravid circle of adults…”

“Are we what is called ‘nihilists’?”

“I do not think so. Nihilists live inside an even graver circle more certain of itself.”

Far from what you might expect from the cover (two hillbillies in black and white, legs dangling as if seated on a bridge or riverbank, one with a fiddle on his knee, both guffawing over a one-liner a la Amos and Andy). But I’m convinced that funny people will “get it.” That you must have a fundamental understanding of humor, of absurdity—an oxymoron, perhaps; how about the willingness to countenance absurdity?—before you can make any serious attempt at understanding or even glimpsing the world as it really is. Absurdity and profundity are the two banks of a river; the two sides of a coin. And Powell knows that the more familiar you are with the absurd, the better you can fathom reality. This book is not a mere exercise in absurdity, not a nose dive into the ground, into a faulty tower. It’s not nihilism, but instead resultant of our crippling uncertainty, our crippling fear, these dudes’ as well as our own—and I mean you and me—in a world that clicks between absurdity and profundity as quickly as hyperlinking, as quickly as these conversations skate by, turning on a word, a syllable, a silence. These men grapple with their own emptiness, their smallness, and we understand the fact that, as much as they talk, they cannot actually fill a book, and that furthermore, anyone who would believe he could fill a book is himself a fool. This includes me, clacking away at my own redneck pastiche. And this definitely includes Powell, who says the concerns of the book are largely his own, that “in the early days I had the wit when writing fiction to actually make things up; only now at age sixty do I degrade into self-portrait, the downfall of the ingenue writer.” (One of the characters in You & Me, we learn toward the end, was apparently a not unsuccessful writer.) As Powell’s two dudes put it near the novel’s end, the best you can hope for, if you’re being honest, is to come out “smard”—their portmanteau of smart and retarded—to “come up with things, here and there,” and just have a hell of a time with the conversation. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter.

Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.