The bad news: Sometimes when I read a novel or a work published in a journal, I ask myself if I’d publish it or not. Being somewhat lazy and mostly unmotivated to try unfamiliar things, I tend to read stuff that I’m pretty sure I know I’ll like, so most of the time that answer is yes. But sometimes, there’s a disturbing thing that happens when I pick up that familiar book, the one I’m 89% sure I’m going to like. I find myself saying no, I don’t think I would publish that. This happened to me in the bulk of the Padgett Powell’s last story collection.
All Along the Watchtower is a three-part cacophony, two parts the ranting of a stroke victim, one part surreal morality tale. The premise is bizarre, spare and feels inconsequential: The narrator, enlisting the help of a nurse administering a constant stream of narcotics, is in search of a 50-pound Chihuahua. The language loops in and around itself, often going off on obsessive-compulsive tangents. It all makes for some tasty reading to the language aficionado, but at major cost to the story. Great writing is a balance of ample language dexterity and storytelling skills. When a piece tips too far in either direction I tend to question the purpose, and great writing should never leave you with that question. Great writing should state its intent. Whether or not it fulfills that is another thing altogether.
The good news: The first three stories in this collection are the embodiment of great writing.
The title character in the story Wayne is a study in what it means to be a modern southern man. Powell creates a compassionate animal in Wayne. Neither or gentleman nor complete shithead, he falls somewhere down the middle, living his life without expectation or fear, a concept that’s ugly on its surface, but so goddamn desirable at its heart.
Trick or Treat, is a small cross section of sexuality: A 12-year-old boy falling in lust with a 36-year-old housewife who may just oblige him. Two humans in probably the most sexually hormonal imbalanced ages a male and female, respectively, can find themselves in. It’s surprising this is the first time I’ve seen is as the stage for a story.
Scarlotti and the Sinkhole, another character study of a rural teen fuck-up with delusions of grandeur and the power that delusions have to change himself and those around him.
One indisputable fact is that Powell is a national (more specifically, a southern) treasure. I love language artists. They are people not only dissatisfied with repeating the same colloquialisms and stock phrases, but downright repelled by the idea. They make it their mission in life to test the limits of coherency, while trying to maintain a steady stream of connectivity with the reader. It takes a wild brain too, a thing Powell has in spades. A brain that fires through rapid cycles of potential and kinetic energy at all times, delighting you nine times out of ten, and one time making you question the mental stability of the brain’s owner. It’s something that’s so goddamn rare and such a hard thing to do that it blows my mind they aren’t given weighty government positions. If the sanest among us can’t handle the job, why not let the crazies have a go of it?