Summer Books Guide: Padgett Powell's You & Me: A Novel

"They have Hendrix-ed me," says cult-hero novelist Padgett Powell of the unlikely wild success in the U.K. of his last book, The Interrogative Mood, a novel composed entirely of questions. The "great menace and magical weird power" of Hendrix, continues Powell in a circuitous manner that will be familiar to his readers, made people "go apeshit." And after that, he says, "it's nuclear. It's from [Monterey] to Woodstock to his overdose death."

Whether the erstwhile National Book Award nominee really means to suggest that his own mojo has risen to such heights, or that he might be in danger of oblivion, he does not say. But his new book, You & Me: A Novel, represents an extension of 2009's The Interrogative Mood while upping the ante from a book of questions to a book of dialogue. You & Me posits a pas de deux between a pair of down-home guys who are perhaps one man and maybe both Padgett Powell—"two suspiciously similar conveniently talking dudes," as he tells the Voice. The fellows engage in a rambling conversation that lurches from the profound to the inane like a jalopy rattling through Gainesville, Florida, where Powell has taught at the University of Florida for nearly 25 years.

When the author is accused of writing a novel that manages to intermingle Plato and Hee Haw, he laughingly concedes the assessment. "They're not really that country, " he demurs. "They're really tame. I don't think they ever go to the store and get liquor. These are polite, tired old men."

They are also extremely funny and almost inadvertently reflective and poetic:

"I have lost my mind, I am comfortable with having lost my mind, and I plan on having my mind stay lost.

"That is Caesarian, almost. What precipitates this observation?

"Por esample: I have spent the better part of the morning cutting up my BVDs for rags, making nice usable little patches of soft polishing cloths by cutting along the seams. This surgery is done as carefully as if it were construction, not dismantling.

"This is not irrational behavior. We can be compelled to many enterprises like this. The brain wants order. The soul likes clean lines, man. The isolated 'cotton panel' speaks to it."

Although Powell's publisher, Ecco, is eager to compare You & Me to Waiting for Godot, Powell's two odd fellows are either too dumb or too smart to expect the arrival of any redemptive figures; they keep busy wondering how the stove knobs could have found their way to the floor during the night.

Powell himself saves the redemptive figures for his real life. He claims, quite earnestly, that an intervening force or personality he calls "Jesus" has occasionally entered his life in weird ways.

"I came down with an intestinal virus, and it made me debilitated for about three months," he says. "During this time one morning, I had a feeling that I had a companion walking along beside me. And I decided that I would call it 'Jesus.'" His Jesus, he explains, who was dressed in a dirty Pink Panther suit, helped him to get a car registered in France—apparently a bureaucratic torment for anyone, let alone an American. After kindly switching his take-a-number with a Frenchwoman, he got waved through, and she met the formidable establishment. "My buddy Jesus [was] right there smiling at this. I did the good Samaritan thing: She got mauled, and I walked out."

It's a testament to Powell's imagination that someone so sure of a divine presence in his own life, albeit a profane/holy one, could conjure two intellectual hicks who think so critically and existentially, then turn back from their questioning attitudes on a dime. If one guy seems eager to discourse on some important subject, the other seems just as eager to mock that subject, to lose the thread, to launch a non sequitur, to bring up a minor topic from 20 dialogues ago.

"There is a fine line between humor and stupidity," says one. Responds the other, "The line is finer all the time." Or as the real Powell puts it, "Seeing how dumb you are is hard because you're being asked to do it with a dumb instrument."

July 31, Ecco, 208 pages, $23.99.

'Elsewhere, California'

By Dana Johnson, June 12

Still steamed about the lack of diversity on HBO's Girls and the rest of current mainstream film and TV in the USA? Read a book already. Namely, Flannery O'Connor Award–winning author Dana Johnson's effortlessly sophisticated bildungsroman about a black girl navigating the tricky racial terrain of her mostly white L.A. school, growing up to become a visual artist, and marrying an Italian. Once all that's done, she has to grapple with her brother and his history of gang violence. Then read Tayari Jones, Tiphanie Yanique, Martha Southgate, and Danielle Evans, to name a few, and you might stop watching TV altogether. Counterpoint, 304 pages, $15.99

'The Receptionist:An Education at "The New Yorker"'

By Janet Groth, June 26

The New Yorker is the Titanic of belles lettres: Anybody with the faintest connection to its fabled history, especially under the longtime editorship of William Shawn, has written a memoir with some genteel angle on its legendary voyage. So don't blame Janet Groth for trying her hand. Before going for her Ph.D. and becoming a SUNY prof, she worked for 21 years (1957 to 1978) as a receptionist at the magazine (hopefully not without some bitterness at that thick glass ceiling). The public now anxiously awaits The Pedestrian: Walking Past Mr. Shawn's Workplace. Algonquin, 240 pages, $21.95

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