Sunday, February 18, 2018
Books

Review: Padgett Powell's 'You & Me' makes a lot from just conversations

Why do we talk?

Why would we not?

I suspect that is why we talk: what would we do if we did not talk?

Precious little else, darlin'.

My point.

Your point is that we do nothing but talk. ...

And that if we cease, we do nothing, are nothing.

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

I dispute you not.

That passage comes about midway through Padgett Powell's new novel, You & Me. The book is nothing but talk, but a long way from nothing.

His wonderful 2009 book, The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, was written entirely in questions, directed at the reader by an unidentified but increasingly intimate speaker.

In You & Me there are two voices in conversation, but they are just as anonymous — no names, no descriptions, no way to know which one is speaking. Not much time and place, either, just what Powell notes at the beginning:

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.

If that description of two guys stuck in a nondescript spot talking endlessly reminds you of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, that's likely no accident. (It does seem to be the literary year for Godot homages; Dave Eggers set his riff on the play in Saudi Arabia in A Hologram for the King.)

Powell's pair, unlike Beckett's, does seem anchored in a broad time frame — given their boyhood-lust-tinged memories of Lucille Ball and Jayne Mansfield, they're baby boomers — and a particular culture, the American South. Whatever else they might or might not be, these old boys are Southern storytellers, masters of the gothic twist, the wry comeback and the sentimental reminiscence about good dogs or lost women. Their voices become so vivid that reading the book begins to feel like eavesdropping — and a fine spell of eavesdropping it is.

Powell has taught writing at the University of Florida since 1984, the year his debut novel, Edisto, was nominated for the American Book Award (now called the National Book Award) and excerpted in the New Yorker.

Edisto, which garnered glowing comparisons to such classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, was a fairly conventional narrative. But even then voice — in that case, the voice of a phenomenally precocious 12-year-old named Simons Everson Manigault — was the driver of Powell's fiction.

In the decades since, he has moved into more experimental forms while honing that exquisite ear for voice and dialogue in four other novels and two short story collections. The Interrogative Mood and You & Me pare away just about everything but voice to remarkable effect — although the speakers in You & Me would argue with me about that word "remarkable."

In such a book, words are everything, their meanings quicksilver and resonant. Powell makes a feat of extreme difficulty look easy: creating dialogue that seems utterly natural and unaffected yet shimmers with deeper meaning.

The book is made up of short chapters — some very short, like this one:

Dude.

What?

Nothing.

Most are longer than that, but none more than a few pages, each reading like a discrete conversation but echoing with themes introduced earlier. Sometimes they're ordinary, mildly drunken conversations — the guys chat about tennis and Tarzan and Peter Jennings, talk dirty, deconstruct words like "content" and "evidently," spin wild stories about characters with names like Studio Becalmed and Constant Rectitude, complain and complain some more.

But those conversations can take surprising turns into sweet memory and still-sharp heartbreak, and finally they come to the subjects they have been circling around — confession and regret and mortality. The two imagine calling the Salvation Army — "the Army of Salvation" — to come to their house and take everything in it but them. Their conversations, and they seem to have no one left but each other (or maybe they're one man talking to himself), are a surrendering and stripping away of life.

Even then, they can come up with visions of heaven, a modest and rueful heaven with fields and birds and dogs and a record player full of 45s, where "(f)orgetting and remembering have shaken hands ... I would never hurt anyone's feelings because I would never see anyone."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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