There’s a story in Padgett Powell’s beguiling, absurd, and hilariously batshit new collection of stories, Cries for Help, Various, in which a man wearing a “Taupist”-monk-made meat shirt (yes, it’s meant to be taken literally… I think) goes on a rattlesnake-killing spree inside an apartment filled with gi-clad karate enthusiasts. In another story, a man named Steve Peanutbrain buys a woman porcupines to wear as earrings. If you want to try and unpack any symbolism in it, go ahead. But that’s the fun of reading Powell: you’re never sure what to take seriously, or not. He pushes it to an extreme in this wild new collection. With its fusion of dadaist wordplay, gonzo slapstick, and deadpan Southern irony, reading Cries for Help, Various is like watching a lost episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus scripted by the late, great Barry Hannah.
Of course there’s a risk that its charm will run out; but we’re in the hands of a serious storyteller, one with an unusual sensitivity to the pathos that can anchor the most surreal scenarios and motivate characters. In the utterly weird meat-shirt story, for example, we zig and zag between increasingly zany situations until the rug is pulled, and we’re left with this lovely, tragic final line:
We’ll be there with you in the end, happy and done ourselves with the bipolar daily marching lies.
I’ll admit, it took two enjoyable readings of the story to notice that it didn’t end on the word “lives,” as I had initially misread, but “lies”—which left me, momentarily, in a kind of Hitchcock warp-shot epiphany.
Or this runaway line of resigned agnosticism near the end of “Perhaps South America”:
Paralysis and doom and a belief in something better than paralysis and doom is all we are given, men with assumed names and occasional parrots and bluster and bad memories in a black-and-white landscape.
This stirring balance of silliness and tragedy transcends and wins, over and over. Powell’s sentence-by-sentence batting average is up there with the very best.
Yet Powell has always been a tough and enigmatic writer to categorize. His prose style and artistic ideology can change from line to line. His work thrives on the tensions of contradiction. There’s full-blown broad comedy, then tragedy. There are self-conscious post-modern pyrotechnics, then passages that approach earnest realism. And, though he makes efforts to erase it, there’s a country-fried Southern thing going on beneath it all, too.
A Gainesville native, Powell plays freely with the stereotypical touchstones of a hyperreal South. There’s enough trailers, trucks, dogs, and booze to pad out a Sammy Kershaw album. Yet by his own admission, he sees his work “outside the good-old-boy-network.” More often than not, this collection suggests a writer without any particular allegiance whatsoever—regional, aesthetic, artistic. He appears willing to try anything. That is, as long as it’s in the pursuit of some kind of new emotional truth.
Say, for example, the inexplicable trio of very funny, satiric Cold War fantasias featuring Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin, complete with references to Michael Jackson, John Travolta, and the girls of James Bond. One story has a couple trying to figure out if the Yeltsin doppelgänger tending their bar may actually be the man himself. Another, narrated by a neurotic, bird-loving Yeltsin, has him moving “room to room in the free-market world” as he obsesses over the shrinking and drying of his fingers.
There’s also a story about picking up meat in the soles of one’s shoes. The title? “Love.”
Cries For Help, Various can be brainy and confounding. (To give you an idea of what he’s capable of, Powell’s 2009 novel, The Interrogative Mood, was written entirely in the interrogative form.) And yet line by line it’s nowhere near inaccessible. I bet you could leave the book at any bus stop or dentist office, and whoever found it would enjoy fits of laughter.
Back to his willingness to try anything, though. It’s no coincidence that Powell is often aligned with Donald Barthelme, who served as a mentor to Powell in the ’80s and helped him edit his breakthrough novel, Edisto. Barthelme, too, was an outsider of a mystifying South. In the copy I’m holding right now, not only is “Uncle Don” the first author mentioned in the publisher’s preface, but the synopsis on the back quotes his advice that “wacky mode” must also “break their hearts.” This may help contextualize Powell to unfamiliar readers, but Powell’s vision is entirely his own. I’ve never read anyone like him. Barry Hannah (the syntactical anarchy), Amy Hempel (the brevity and lyricism), and Ian Frazier (the range and cartoony energy) all come to mind, but no comparison seems quite right.
Sometimes Powell’s trapped-next-to-a-questionably-sane-guy-on-a-bus intensity grows tedious, and the pacing of the 44-story collection can be scattershot. But this is more of a cumulative blown fuse. One needs only to stop, pick a page at random, and retake the loopy joy of his sentences. Read enough of them and you’ll discover a poignant rendering of an America gone insane on strip malls, strange sex, credit debt, and lonely karate; an America that seems familiar, terrifying, and heartbreaking in its inevitability. “The New World may be in fact a very, very, very, very Old World,” says Powell in the coming-to-America fable, “The New World”.
With Powell we’re safe in the knowledge that there is someone out there who senses what’s “off” about modernity and, regardless of whether any real sense can be made of it, demands that some hilarious truth be wrung out.