Padgett Powell's fiction is all about the voice.
From his 1984 debut novel, Edisto, told by an unforgettably precocious 12-year-old boy, to his most recent novels — The Interrogative Mood, written entirely in questions, and You & Me, a virtuoso two-person conversation — Powell has been a master of literary voice, often creating memorable characters (especially in his later books) using almost nothing in the way of physical description or background or setting in time or place — all those nuts and bolts authors use to assemble a world the reader is willing to step into for a while.
Powell does it with voices, voices that are hilarious or bemused or confused or belligerent or melancholy or imperious or lusty or just plain strange. There is a whole chorus of those voices in his new short story collection, Cries for Help, Various.
This is the third story collection (after Typical and Aliens of Affection) by Powell, who has been on the faculty of the creative writing program at the University of Florida since 1984. He has also published six novels.
Some of the stories in Cries for Help, Various are very short, what's fashionably called (although one suspects Powell would wryly resist being called fashionable) microfiction, just a few paragraphs or even sentences. Others are several pages long, but all pack a lot into a little space.
In style they echo a range of writers, from Powell's teacher Donald Barthelme to Charles Portis, from Flannery O'Connor to George Saunders. But they are all indubitably Powell.
Many of the stories in Cries for Help, Various veer toward the surreal, as life so often does. Sometimes it's mild, as in Sisters, a kind of Southern-fried Samuel Beckett playlet, with two characters complaining about their spouses:
Has it begun?
I think it has.
Well if it has, it is going to end soon enough. We don't have much in the way of prospects. Our husbands are bringing rodents into the house for odd purposes. They arguably are not of sound mind.
We are with them, so we are not of sound mind either.
Other stories boast entire surreal constructs, like Joplin and Dickens, which gives us the great blues singer in the third grade in Austin, Texas, in a classroom to which the great novelist (here known as Charlie) has been inexplicably transported, with his mind and vocabulary intact in the body of a 9-year-old boy on whom Janis has a crush.
Even the author (or the author's voice) admits it's a stretch in the first paragraph: "Let's abjure poetry because the conceit of this — Janis Joplin and Mr. Dickens a century out of time — is already inane. We will stick to the facts and try not to be pretty." But there's poetry there, and he won't abjure it.
Some of the stories are dreamy, such as the nostalgic Dusk and the trippy Solitude; others are nightmarish, like Wearing a Meat Shirt and Killing a Snake: "We hoped that olive loaf would appeal even less to them than it did to us."
Others lean toward political satire, like Change of Life, about a man who discovers the great secret of capitalism in a machine that shoots cookies, or simply play with the surreal nature of politics, as in a cluster of stories about former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who tells us, "To Putin I have given over everything but the nuclear suitcase. ... I have found the nuclear suitcase to be a superior chick magnet."
And then there are a few that will flat crack your heart, like Not Much Is Known, a page and a half about a boy and his dog: "The dog died trapped in a salmon-colored Renault. It was not known who closed him in it."
Every one of them is a voice worth hearing.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.