A novel in dialogue from Padgett Powell, whose last work was a novel in questions.
Cranky Floridian Padgett Powell began a just resurgence with 2009's "The Interrogative Mood," a funny and profound little novel written entirely in questions. His latest, "You & Me," is a kindred work, a nominal novel uninterested in novelistic conventions, this time written entirely in dialogue. It's something like "Waiting for Godot" for Allman Brothers fans, or like Denis Diderot's novels-cum-dialogues, or like the interludes from the sidewalk pundits in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing."
Two men talk on a porch "somewhere between Bakersfield, California, and Jacksonville, Florida -- we think spiritually nearer the former and geographically nearer the latter." One, it seems, is more loquacious than the other, but, as this same speaker concedes (or is it the other one?), they're "arguably indistinct from another," and soon we gather that this is the sort of colloquy and debate one conducts with oneself. "I is another," as Rimbaud put it.
Late in the book a member of this pair or divided self is credited with writing books (Powell's, we guess). This somewhat undercuts the talkers' (depleted) spirit of unmitigated fecklessness. These are men who do little but talk, fish (reportedly) and make offstage shuffles to the nearby liquor store, for which we imagine they don't necessarily change out of their slippers. They are, as one has it, "negativos," worse off even than the junkie. ("He has at least his want and he seeks to claim it.")
The negativos' prevailing modes, interests, and concerns will be familiar to readers of "The Interrogative Mood": an often lyrical nostalgia; the pleasure of simple, finely made things; a sharply tapered or altogether absent sex life; the growth of bureaucracy; the grave or trivial ignorance most of us subside in; the supposedly worse-than-nearly-ever state of the world; death. These are inexhaustible topics, though Powell also revisits riffs about Robert Crumb in France and the elusive essence and purpose of Howdy Doody, ideas he probably covered sufficiently the first time.
Owing in part to these echoes, and to loopy exchanges that aren't as amusing or "insane" as Powell must think, "You & Me" feels less urgent and inspired than "The Interrogative Mood." It is, however, similarly addictive, a plotless page-turner. Readers -- male ones, especially -- are likely to find many moments of recognition, either in the book's modest opinions (about Lucille Ball's underrecognized sexiness, for instance), or in its tipsy yet sobering refrain that most of us haven't and aren't likely to do anything significantly noble or good, that our futures might involve "weeping bitterly and unchallenged by the roadside."
The nimble use there of "unchallenged" gives a sense of the pleasure of Powell's prose, a distinctly Southern blend of wry B.S. and half-ironic formality, old jokes and neologisms. All that and a six-pack will make for good company on a hot August afternoon. If the book affects you at all, you'll close it with a sense of completely absent accomplishment.
Dylan Hicks is a writer, musician, and the author of the novel "Boarded Windows."