A collection of essays from novelist Padgett Powell displays much of what makes his voice unique.
Indigo: Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving, and Some Things in Between, by Padgett Powell (Catapult, 272 pp., $16.95)
Though nominated for a National Book award following the 1984 publication of his first novel, Edisto, Padgett Powell has not been interested in a career limited to what he calls “cuddly realism.” And this student of American literary surrealism guru Donald Barthelme has suffered no such limitation. From his short story collections Typical and Aliens of Affection to the novel The Interrogative Mood—composed entirely of questions—to You and Me, which exists solely in dialogue with no hint of narration, Powell has regularly sailed into uncharted waters.
Craft is a major preoccupation of the essays that make up his 2021 collection Indigo, whether they be profiles of an arm wrestler or a musician or a painter or a fellow writer. Powell marvels not just at the creative intelligence of his subjects but also the practice of their specific disciplines. He quotes singer Debbie Harry to emphasize the importance of learning the basics of craft before one worries about becoming an artist: “Learn to play your instruments, then get sexy.”
One compelling portrait here is of Juan Perez, drummer for the Beth McKee Band. Powell joins Perez when the musician purchases a Delta Special at the Randall Knife factory (Powell has an affinity for the well-made knife), which the drummer later uses to slice fresh sausage bought at Bradley’s Country Store (Powell also has an affinity for food). Powell describes a ride on the band’s bus, including a conversation regarding the attractiveness of The Andy Griffith Show’s Helen Crump and Mayberry, North Carolina’s suitability as the setting for a blue film.
Lay people can understand the difficult work involved in becoming a master musician, but Powell sees the same principles applied in what the uninitiated might regard as mere brute competition. Former world champion arm wrestler Clive Dean can “watch a guy pulling and see twenty-five different changes in his style in a matter of three seconds.” These variations in technique cannot be implemented mechanically, or by rote, because they are part of, in Dean’s words, “one big blanket, a blanket that doesn’t have an end to it, it’s just a round blanket, and you got to draw from it whatever you need at the time.” Powell’s gift for imagery is on open display in Indigo, as when he describes how an opponent of Dean’s “knows he is getting a handful of arm that has the mass of a fire hydrant and that knows what it’s doing.”
In “Hitting Back,” Powell discusses family photographs taken during his formative years by way of explaining why he became a writer. He tells us that there is enough “nut blood” in his family for “any but the truly uninterested” to have “a well-grounded start in the art of assembling strange truths into less strange lies.” Beyond the DNA component of his literary prowess, Powell balances the nature versus nurture argument by presenting his father’s parental formula for the use of corporal punishment. Three infractions could lead the senior Powell to strike young Padgett: first, if he were to be picked on at school and not fight back, his father would let him know what he thought of that choice; second, if Padgett let the baseball intimidate him while at bat in Little League, he would discover that there was less reason to fear the ball than to fear his father; and third, at school again, if he were to be paddled by an authority figure, the punishment would be worse once he got home. Powell surmises that he began writing due to “a soaring faith in the improbable belief that with pen and paper one can hit back.”
Among the photographs included in “Hitting Back” is one of an elementary school-aged Powell holding an Indigo snake wrapped across his shoulders. His fifth-grade teacher had placed him in charge of the snake, which was a cast member in the school play.
The photo makes a neat foreshadowing of the title piece of this collection, “Saving the Indigo,” which explains Powell’s lifelong interest in snakes. Though snakes are far from the most popular member of the animal kingdom, Powell is “prepared to defend them with the zeal of a carnival barker.” And the Indigo is “unlike any other snake.” Unable to unhinge its jaws, as many snakes do, to swallow large prey, the Indigo must eat “and poop” frequently. The Indigo is smart, able to identify individuals and keep its eyes focused on them, much like a dog. Though exotically intimidating with its size and dark sheen, the Indigo is “incredibly docile”—except for matters involving food—which is why it is the snake of choice for strippers to include in their acts.
A “snake nut,” as Powell describes it, is an individual whose genetic predisposition—as holder of the “chase gene”—leads him to searching for snakes in their natural environment. A bad snake nut is one involved in the snake-trading business—snake collectors and habitat loss being the two main reasons the Indigo will not be with us much longer. “They were beautiful, they were friendly, and they were money,” Powell writes, already speaking of the Indigo in the past tense.
Powell went to great lengths to make sure he was known as a good snake nut so that professionals would be willing to take him along in their efforts to find an Indigo in the wild. Herpetology is the scientific study of snakes—but “herp nerds” operate in a less official scientific capacity and, as Powell is told, they come in two types. The first “is the wild, I’ll grab anything daredevil” who “tends to be lean and have stories about where he’s gone and what he’s been bitten by.” The other type is “the sedentary collector, the breeder,” Powell explains, “who is typically not lean and who talks about the color phases he is making in his breeding.” Powell notices a third type within the herpetological world: “a boy or girl with the chase gene who has upgraded into science to ratify or exculpate his or her penchant for chasing snakes”—that is, they seek a scientific pedigree to distinguish themselves from run-of-the-mill snake freaks.
Powell laments the loss of the world that once made room for the Indigo, understanding that the “save the snake” camp is rather small. Knowing that elephants, to which most people are more easily drawn—and which have lobbyists working on their behalf—are being driven to extinction for “their two big front teeth,” he does not see much hope for his beloved Indigo.
Powell’s profile of wildlife painter C. Ford Riley reads almost like a poetics of his own writing philosophy. Riley often paints while looking at a mirror’s reflection of his work, wanting to convey realism but at the same time knowing that “Photorealism is something I don’t care for at all.” Riley analogizes his painting to playing the piano. “It’s more interesting to play a broken chord than it is just a straight-out chord.” This Powell understands implicitly: “[Riley] wants a broken reality to convey a realistic sense.” It would be hard to do better for a description of Powell’s writing.
Much of Indigo is devoted to the discussion of other writers. Of his mentor Barthelme, Powell writes: “He was a pioneer writer . . . who began with ‘bad Hemingway’ and refracted that through Kafka and Beckett and Perlman and Thurber.” Powell feels a kindred sense with Tennessee Williams, acknowledging that both men struggled with their mothers and “want of intellection.” Before finding a home in the literary world, Powell was a failed chemistry major.
Writing for a selective audience, Powell hasn’t gotten many royalties checks worth boasting about. For a career-size chunk of his life, he paid his bills by teaching writing at the University of Florida. It’s not clear that Powell has the highest regard for his profession as educator; he cites Flannery O’Connor’s view of herself as “a writer innocent of theory but not without certain preoccupations.” He does offer some advice, however. The best way to study Williams’s writing, he thinks, is by reading his later, less successful plays. Powell feels something similar about Hemingway—that how good Hemingway was becomes clear upon reading what he wrote in his declining years. As for the late Denis Johnson, Powell declares that, in matters of writing, “Denis Johnson was the best at it.”
Powell calls William Trevor’s Collected Stories “pound for pound the most literary bang for the buck in the English world.” The book, he says, “is the most telling demonstration of how to write . . . and why to write . . . there is.” Even if Trevor was not troubled by losing out on the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan, Powell was: “It kills me,” he writes.
Powell sees the lesser-known Peter Taylor, “the kind of writer one discovers by overhearing better-known writers talk about writers,” as the American counterpart to Trevor. What he finds in both Taylor and Trevor is that life “is a surface of propriety” in which their characters “live tortured proper perfect lives and long for the naughty.” Both Trevor and Taylor see the “outright kinky business slouching under the surface.”
Novelist Pete Dexter describes his wonderfully rambling introduction to Indigo as less of a foreword to a book than a tribute to a great writer. “Whatever Padgett writes, I wish I’d written it, too,” Dexter says. He admits that he considers Powell competition, though he acknowledges that he may as well be “jealous of the moon” as jealous of Powell’s talents. “Indigo is a beautiful collection of stories,” he writes. “I can barely stand to have it be over.” Powell’s small but grateful readership will agree.
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