Padgett Powell goes in pursuit of the snake


Arm wrestling, snake save and some things in between
By Padgett Powell

A number of possible metaphors for Padgett Powell’s new collection of essays, “Indigo,” serve as a means of understanding the author himself. Is Powell, who was a phenomenon of consensus on the release of his first novel, “Edisto”, in 1984, a giant lurking on the fringes of American literature, is he about to return to the limelight and recover his crown, Cleve Dean-style, the 6-foot-7 and sometimes maybe 700-pound standoff that Powell profiled for Harper’s in 1995? Is he, like the indigo snake he pursues in the book’s title essay, a member of an endangered species: one of the few remaining hardy southerner gentleman authors, a race whose recent victims include his friends Barry Hannah and Brad Watson? Can we compare him to the gumbo, his style a mixture of influences encompassing such unlikely couples as William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett, Norman Mailer and Grace Paley, William Trevor and Donald Barthelme? Is Powell, like another of his heroes, Peter Taylor, a true “Biggee” of American literature but “the kind of writer that one discovers by hearing more famous writers speak of writers”?

Powell strikes me as all of these things: a shadow champion, a rare creature, a delicious hybrid – and a major American writer, if the one whose name isn’t on everyone’s tip of the tongue these days – this. “Indigo” is his first non-fiction book, after six novels and three collections of stories. The 18 essays in the volume span four decades and are unified by her unique voice, which in turn makes “Indigo” a piece with her works of fiction. Most of the essays clearly have their origins in commissions from magazines (from Lucky Peach to Garden & Gun), anthologies or conferences, but they are never far from the voice of Simons Manigault, the 12-year-old white boy in to become. prodigy that tells “Edisto”, largely from an African-American dive bar. Any editor who goes to Powell for passable hacks has the wrong person, which may explain why a New Orleans travel article commissioned by the New York Times in 1992 first appeared in “Indigo”. It sounds less like a magazine article than a long thread about a short stay between hotels, water points and a prison in a wild town, heard in a bar somewhere north or east of the delta. of Mississippi.

Powell’s voice commands baring as his prose controls the page. You can see the heads of the strangers turn to the man beyond the taps telling tales of his father yelling at him to lean over land that harasses him in Little League, of shenanigans he engaged in while directing a team of roofers in Texas or crashing a party at William Gaddis ‘house in Manhattan (“it doesn’t literally get bigger than at Gaddis’). And so, the prose takes you through the pages of “Indigo”, whatever the subject. I’m not particularly interested in gumbo, dogs, kitsch photographs of dogs by Bill Wegman (loved by John Belushi), kitsch paintings of ducks by C. Ford Riley (loved by Ted Turner), or percussion by Juan Perez for the perfectly enjoyable roots playing the band Beth McKee; but I kept reading about them because of Powell’s majestic and often majestically long sentences. Powell’s wonderfully tapering portraits of writers curl and weave, then suddenly focus on core imperatives like this one about his late friend Denis Johnson: “Just go look at those crushed baby rabbits again.” The allusion is to Johnson’s famous “Emergency” story. Powell is also a small game poet. Before him, the only writer I had read on squirrels was Nabokov. But the Russian never tells you how to kill them (with a 28 gauge Ruger rifle, “a rifle as elegant as an egret”), skin them (with a hunting knife) or serve them (okra). Thanks Padgett Powell.

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