With his 2009 The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, Padgett Powell produced one of the most readable literary oddities of the past decade. In that book, a narrator — perhaps the author himself — fired off questions (and only questions) that come to read less like a novel than a personality test gone haywire: "Should a tree be pruned? Are you perplexed by what to do with underwear whose elastic is spent but which is otherwise in good shape? Do you dance?" And so on, for more than 150 pages.
It could have been an exhausting gimmick, but instead Powell's queries — some direct, others hilariously complex — achieved an intricately constructed randomness. Was it a novel? Maybe, though it lacked most of the things traditional novels have, such as character development, setting, plot. Whatever it was, it certainly was a long way from Powell's previous work, notably the coming-of-age debut Edisto (1984), a Catcher in the Rye-influenced novel in which a 12-year-old boy prepares, under his mother's direction, to become a writer by reading the classics. In fact, although it bears an interesting resemblance to the French author Edouard Leve's more declarative Autoportrait, published in the U.S. this year, The Interrogative Mood feels so divorced from literary heritage that readers would be forgiven for positing their own question: What next?
The answer, Powell's You & Me, has arrived — a comic dialogue between two men who, one gathers, are middle-aged, jobless, Southern, white and drunk. Though it doubles The Interrogative Mood's number of characters, the new book is, like its predecessor, a fairly stripped-down affair. There is a setting, sort of, identified in the stage direction that opens the book: "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." Beyond that, it's pure, 200-proof tete-a-tete, with the two speakers distinguished by nothing except paragraph breaks — no attribution, no character names, and not much character development.
In fact, there's almost no physical action. These two besotted dudes occasionally consider abandoning the porch — "Let's go down to the creek and stare Despair down" — but they never leave. This, it turns out, is a strength: Distilling his two dudes down to bare dialogue, Powell frees himself to focus entirely on their exchange, which cuts and swerves with an astonishing, off-kilter cadence. His characters might be all talk and no walk, but what wonderful talk it is:
In what environments should a man have it together? In a chamber of surgery, with a scalpel in hand?
Yes. There he should have it together in the extreme.
Are there other venues where he should really have it together?
No. Let us say he is holding on to the back of a garbage truck and stepping off it as cans of garbage on the curb are approached and swinging these cans of garbage into the truck and setting them down empty, or tossing them any old way, and stepping back on the truck (which has not come to a real stop) as it progresses toward the hundreds or thousands of cans remaining on the route — he does not need to have it together for this, and this is essentially not unlike any other human endeavor on earth just now, except for surgery.
Absurd, crude and full of dipso insight, these men hold forth on a number of topics: Jesse Owens, Robert Crumb, flying dogs, Jayne Mansfield's breasts and their own personal failure ("God wasted two whole spaces on us as human integers. We're nils in terms of becoming all that we can become"). The surprises here come not through plot development but rapid changes in subject; every time you think you know where they're headed, they cut into new and strange verbal territory. Discussing whether pustulent is a word, one says: "I see pestilent and postulant, but no pustulent. You look momentarily like a sloppy vampire when you say it."
Where The Interrogative Mood seemed to be drawing from sources unknown, You & Me points to a more recognizable influence, most notably Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. But even with that guiding light, Powell remains gloriously untethered. His characters are free of family, back story and obligation. One says: "I have a vision of our sitting here, rather nattily somehow, in a clean place unbothered by biographical detritus and other riprap." The other (or is it the same one?) later says: "A man and all his effects ... is a sad business, you get right down to it. ... He can't get rid of the crap that weighs him down. ... He needs a house fire, of course, but he also needs a mind fire." Powell, in his recent work, has set his mind ablaze. And nothing but exquisite and deeply strange language is left to emerge from the ashes.