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.
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
'The Galaxie and Other Rides'
By Josie Sigler, June 30
A lesbian horse healer has a codependent relationship with a terminally ill singer. A hooker's daughter comes of age in a motel. A disillusioned father douses himself in gasoline. Josie Sigler's The Galaxie and Other Rides, a violent, sexy, intense debut story collection jammed with high-stakes surprises and complex characters, nails, as few writers have in recent memory, lives and voices from America's 99 Percent—or maybe 50 Percent. Sigler crams these 12 tales of trashy rural Michigan, each linked to a representative used car, with dazzling sentences and stories that take more risks than Denis Johnson and prove she's more of a man than Jim Shepard. Livingston Press, University of West Alabama, 192 pages, $32
'Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady'
By Kate Summerscale, June 19
From Madame Bovary to Belle de Jour to Desperate Housewives, the unruly sexual fantasies and exploits of wealthy married women have always made for exciting narratives. Summerscale, known for excavating Victorian misbehavior, has uncovered the equivalent of a lost city in the story of Isabella Walker, a British society lady whose extensive diary became a matter of public record after her husband read it and discovered confessions he judged to be adulterous, at a time when divorce had just become easier, recalling a period when dishonor had an elegant cast. Nowadays, we'd call it looking at her Facebook page. Bloomsbury USA, 320 pages, $26
'Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz'
By C. Carr, July 17
He was the quintessential gay hustler outsider artist with AIDS of the East Village scene in the late '80s and early '90s. Which is actually saying a lot. Even if, like most people, you can't pronounce "Wojnarowicz," you live in his artistic shadow. C. Carr, who made her name in these pages chronicling the scene from which he arose, knows how to pronounce "Wojnarowicz," and here describes his disturbing upbringing and uncanny rise, shedding light on why his art and writing are still important and were controversial enough to shut down the National Portrait Gallery in 2010, 18 years after his death. Bloomsbury, 624 pages, $35
'Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities (Historical Studies of Urban America)'
By Carl H. Nightingale, June 1
It's called Segregation, and the cover shows a division between black and white buildings, but don't let that mislead you. SUNY Buffalo urban and world-history prof Nightingale's book is an ambitious, comprehensive history of divided cities and ghettos all over the globe, not just Jim Crow American–style. We're going all the way back to Mesopotamia, y'all. We're talking about Belfast; we're talking about Nazi Germany and Jerusalem. Not only that, but we're facing up to the idea that "such movements to segregate cities spread because they were interconnected." Not exactly a conspiracy, he says—more like an open-source segregation Wiki. University of Chicago Press, 536 pages, $35
'Meta-Geopolitics of Outer Space: An Analysis of Space Power, Security, and Governance'
By Nayef R.F. Al-Rodhan, July 3
At first, it seems like madness, a book that fell out of the future. But consider the pedigree of the author—Oxford prof, long-titled Swiss Geopolitics think tank official, "philosopher, neuroscientist, and geostrategist," author of 19 books, etc.—and that powerful people are making decisions about how to carve space into the shape of the globe, and you begin asking the appropriate questions, probably with your jaw slackened. How can geographic issues persist beyond the confines of the planet Earth? Are they already doing so? What are the powers of the state in outer space? Why haven't I worried about this before? Palgrave Macmillan, 288 pages, $90
'The Devil in Silver'
By Victor LaValle, August 21
"My three obsessions are mental illness, horror, and religion," novelist Victor LaValle has admitted, and after the success of 2009's Big Machine, he doubtless felt freer to indulge those obsessions. His upcoming book sounds like even more of a straight-up horror novel, about an X-Men-esque team of mental patients in a psychiatric hospital in Queens who do battle with a quasi-minotaur that patrols the institution at night. OK, maybe LaValle's obsession with religion doesn't figure in much here—this gang doesn't seem to have a prayer. Spiegel & Grau, 464 pages, $27
'No Animals We Could Name: Stories'
By Ted Sanders, July 3
Ted Sanders writes stories like an alien. Specifically, that guy from Starman who doesn't understand how anything works on Earth. He writes from the perspective of a halibut, a fisherman, a passing octopus. In other pieces, he writes about a man's encounter with a tiny female acquaintance almost as if he were a crash-test dummy. Sanders has an obsession with air bags. And another with lizards. Maybe cats, too. And at least in one story, "The Heart As a Fist," the word "fist." These stories have a blissfully clinical precision, redolent of David Foster Wallace, that we should perhaps dub "New Autism." Graywolf Press, 272 pages, $15
'Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans'
By John Marzluff, illustrated by Tony Angell, June 5
When U of Washington forest-sciences prof Marzluff claims that smart birds "behave like humans," he does not mean that they drive cars, shoot guns, or play basketball. He does mean that they can solve problems by making tools, that they have spectacular memory and social intelligence, they rock at shell games, and, actually, they can windsurf. This sweetly eccentric but earnest volume weaves together many tales of crow ability, assessed by scientific inquiry, together with a cultural history of corvids as a defense of their "often maligned" image. Will you see these birds in the same light once you've read this book? Nevermore. Free Press, 304 pages, $25
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