Book review: Padgett Powell’s new non-fiction collection immerses you in the mind of an unconventional novelist

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“INDIGO: ARM WRESTLING, SNAKE SAUVER AND SOME THINGS IN BETWEEN” by Padgett Powell (Catapult, 272 pages, $ 17).

Fans of Padgett Powell’s fiction expect to find “Indigo,” his debut collection of non-fiction, quirky characters and inimitable prose, and they won’t be disappointed. Another group of readers, unfamiliar with Powell’s catalog but drawn to it by ecstatic reviews and superlative feature articles (“one of the few really important American writers of our time,” says Sam Lipsyte), has a treat in reserve.

Perhaps the latter group will believe they have discovered an unsung genius and pass Powell off as an essayist. Debates will erupt, as they did with David Foster Wallace, over whether Powell is better as a journalist or novelist. It’s a conversation worth having. (The correct answer is novelist.)

The first two items in Indigo’s subtitle – “Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving” – refer to the collection’s bookends, lengthy articles on Cleve Dean, Pavo’s 700-pound world arm wrestling champion , Georgia, and on Powell’s quest to hold an indigo snake before the endangered species became extinct. While these pieces are wonders in their own right, examples of the magazine’s profile and personal narrative (or “memoirite,” as Powell calls it, a disease that spreads through the literary population, “more frightening than Ebola” ), these are anomalies here. Most of the pieces are shorter, more original and unclassifiable.

Catapult / “Indigo: Arm wrestling, snake save and a few things in between”

What sets a Powell character apart from the rest of the world? The key quality has nothing to do with age, gender, race or religion; it is rather an ontological difference: they live in the sentences of Powell. They may share names with real-world characters, but, being reborn in Powell’s prose, they gain increased meaning. “Cleve Dean is like a god, so a god can be invariably pleasing,” Powell writes. “He’s an icon and an oracle that people want to be physically close to, and historically he’s Big Daddy.”

The people Powell admires seem larger than life, yes, but mostly non-life. This collection is visited by Powell’s Pantheon of Dominant Spirits. He refers to Donald Barthelme, his professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, as “God here in Houston, we were lowly sun-thirsty Aztecs at his Quetzalcoatl. Powell calls Flannery O’Connor “the goddess”. “I worship her in a way that she would also advise against, in fact, would probably categorically, harshly repudiate her.”

On the Olympian peak, says Powell, is Peter Taylor, who, paradoxically, was modest and “southerner” in person. Powell, for 35 years a “teaching school” of creative writing at the University of Florida, has included Taylor in its curriculum alongside “delusional” writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Flann O’Brien, Beckett, Kleist and Diderot. Each year, “the students testified that it was Peter Taylor they appreciated the most, Peter Taylor as they wanted to write. I never understood him, I understood him.”

What you won’t get in Powell’s essays is a universal theory of art. As a school teacher he avoids “literary criticism or even review criticism; in the school setting, what we do is ask how could this writing be different so that it’s not so bad next time. “When Powell launches into aesthetic theory, he quickly loses interest.” Bill Wegman takes it second, where he’s not wacky, “Powell says of the famous pictures of Weimaraner, “and part of the way he does it is with a line drawing as strong as that of Picasso and his bulls. Let’s move on. to.”

Powell uses writer profiles to offer his take on what makes writing work. Reflections on O’Connor lead him to the only wisdom he offers young writers, namely that “writing is a controlled fantasy.” In a tribute to Denis Johnson, Powell gives “the highest praise I can give for writing and respecting a writer: the best is tough, honest comedy, and Denis Johnson was the best at it. domain”.

Powell sometimes needs neologisms to describe the traits he admires. In his assessment of Taylor, Powell admits to having taken a roundabout route. “I’ve foolishly wandered through all this uselessness now for pages in hopes of squeezing into relevance,” he says. “It doesn’t always work, and you might just sound silly.” Finally, Powell asserts that Taylor’s fiction embodies an essential truth, à la John Irving: “Life is a surface of decorum with an innuendo of villainy underneath. “

Regardless of the ostensible subjects of these essays – art, travel, dead dogs – Powell’s constant concern remains itself, not narcissistically but as a product of middle-aged self-awareness. In Bermuda, the experience of rubbing a barracuda “is something that would thrill a boy to death and it almost makes me a boy again to do it and I’m fifty-nine-eleven-twelfth-how-that-that happens to me old. “

“Indigo” is worth the prize only for the preface by Pete Dexter, Powell’s longtime friend and admirer. Dexter’s long, rambling essay is a fitting tribute to a writer Dexter compares to Willie Mays. “My own literary critic,” writes Dexter, “so far, whatever Padgett writes, I would have liked to write it too.”

For more local book coverage, visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

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