“Listen, I’d rather not talk today. I want to go watch old tennis players be displaced by young tennis players and the crowd weep as they retire and then start cheering for the new cocky-bastard upstarts who have sent them to pasture. This I want to do today, and nothing else. I want a cool soda water in my hand and a hat on my head and to not be overweight myself watching the elderly depart. I can from this position think gently of my own death.”
Though this is just one of the umpteen desires voiced by the two “codgers” who talk their ways through Padgett Powell’s wonderful sixth novel, You & Me, it is, perhaps, the most poignant. Other plans, hopes, and dreams that have to remain unrealized—so that a dialogue, at least, can be realized—include: “Let us get another dog,” “let’s go down to the creek and stare Despair down,” “we could go down to Blockbuster in the vinegar and get Tarzan,” “I’d like to see some flying dogs,” “I think I want me some morphine,” “I would certainly like to have some ice cream.”
The setting for these madcap/dunce-cap wishes, all exchanged unattributed and without quotation marks? Powell up-curtains with the best brief italics direction this side of “Enter mariners wet” or “A heath. Storm still”:
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.
What disturbs them, above all, is youth. The type of youth that likes to litter, golf, and hang out with models, leaning on the hoods of newly waxed BMWs. The type too that doesn’t just write first books but “debuts,” leaving midcareer writers to the midlist, just two shakes of a long tail from oblivion. Powell’s two lubricious dudes shame the shallower, while Powell himself shames me. Like a good bourbon, Powell’s recent work is 80 percent proof of the qualities of age.
To be sure, Powell began cocky-bastard-upstarty enough, with Edisto (1984), the story of Simons Everson Manigault, and his mother’s attempts to turn him into a writer of genius by simultaneously force-feeding him the Great Books and encouraging free-range experience (which, with Powell, means women, other races, women of other races, booze). If his first book was an attempt to rewrite Catcher in the Rye in the style of Barry Hannah, its sequel, Edisto Revisited (1996)—which follows Simons out of college and into working life, or failure—was an attempt to rewrite Gordon Lish rewriting Barry Hannah rewriting Catcher in the Rye. Lish was Hannah’s editor, always arguing for stricter concision; Hannah was strictly Mississippian, argumentative, and drunk. Meanwhile Powell, in the ’80s and ’90s, was stuck in the hideous middle of Florida, stumbling between the long and short of sentences, metaphors, careers. Between the trips to Edisto, Powell wrote A Woman Named Drown (1987), a stripped chassis of a diary recording a twentysomething’s travels through yet another just-folks demimonde; after, he wrote Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men (2000), a rabid explosion of a middle-aged housewife’s grocery list into the listing tale of a Confederate general (who might only be a hologram), and the talent hunt of a media magnate, Roopit Mogul, for the face of the New South (with cameos by “Bundy” and “Oswald”).
But then what happened? What was Powell doing during the nine years between that cartoony mess and his ecstatic transformation in 2009? The Interrogative Mood? That book written all in questions? That book whose very punctuation, wrenched back from the pollsters and service economists, gave every non sequitur such pitiful urgency? Such hapless beauty? Was Powell just drinking for nearly a decade or had he stopped? Cold or Wild Turkey? Did he buy a shotgun and just lie days on his roof trying to shoot sentences out of the sky?
Declaratives, this time. With You & Me we’re now fully basked in semifinal Powell, and, I tell you, me, when it comes to verbal tennis, no baller can compare. Unnamed and undescribed, almost incorporeal—not fat & skinny like Laurel & Hardy, nor black & white like Pryor & Wilder, nor dumb & dumber like Cheech & Chong or, OK, Dumb & Dumber—Powell’s twin talkers are essentially redundancies, white redundancies, who must know how to pronounce, but won’t actually pronounce, “Godot”:
Do you recall the Mexicans sharpening the big knives on the concrete abutments under the bridge and cutting up the sharks?
I will never forget it. They were not big knives, they were outright plain old simple all-they-could-get machetes. Slicing up sharks with machetes!
Hand to mouth.
Mouth to hand.
Hand to hand.
Mouth to mouth. They were not bums sitting on their hands and complaining.
We are good at it, being bums. In our way we have made something also of a desperate situation. It is true that we are not carving up monsters of the deep with farm implements, but—
And that guy writing on the sharks with the charcoal.
I am not sure it was charcoal. It might have been a piece of asphalt. From the road.
This is making do: cut up the fish with something you find in the field, establish ownership with something you find on the road, and go home to something that is not properly a home, I am sure—
And not a word of complaint. Heroes!
We should go to Mexico and shut the fuck up. It’s the least we can do.
The least we can do is note the themes passing by—Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Peter Jennings, the Iraq war, barbering, fishing, and the capacious breasts of Jayne Mansfield, which the codgers refer to as “The Final Alps of Heaven”—and wake the neighbors with praise: You & Me is by turns hilarious, depressing, gnomic, smutty, and just a far better Saturday night than anything to be had in Jacksonville and Bakersfield combined. I’d like to see it staged as a play. I’d like to see it filmed. I’d take the ghost of Jayne Mansfield to watch it on a Saturday—we’d share a jumbo popcorn, and butter it ourselves.
Joshua Cohen's Four New Messages will be published by Graywolf Press in August.