Padgett Powell wants you to beware of warm potatoes. (Courtesy University of Florida)
There are a few times in your life when you meet someone truly great. Even better when that greatness makes you want it, not fear it.
Fiction, Powell once wrote, is taking strange truths and making them into less-strange lies. Here the relative levels of strangeness might be debatable. But in Powell’s world strange truths do seem to manifest themselves regularly. When I arrived to visit him this summer at his house in the woods, he was engaged in a furious war against the local raccoons, which had murdered 17 of his 18 chickens. Powell, who is 57, thick-chested and muscular, had come home from a trip to Morocco to find the neighbor he left in charge — a shoeless machinist Powell paid to build the coops and safeguard the birds — gone AWOL, having taken Powell’s truck, leaving only a note, written on the back of a receipt for $70 of cheap liquor, asking for some money from Powell’s teenage daughter. All that was left for Powell to do was to revenge himself on the raccoons. So now he was trapping them nightly. But unable to shoot an animal trapped in a cage, he had failed to execute the first two he caught, and when I showed up he was girding himself to shoot his latest capture, a shifty-looking, smallish specimen, and be done with it, but he was dithering a bit and growing annoyed with himself that he had enough N.R.A. in him to feel he should have no sympathy for the thing but then also enough NPR in him to hesitate.
Well now there’s enough New York Times in him for the magazine to send a writer down to Gainesville to do a profile. It couldn’t have happened to a better guy:
ON THE DAY he was steeling himself to kill the third raccoon, I came to meet Powell at his house, a two-story Victorian that sits about half a mile down a dirt driveway. We were headed an hour northeast to the St. Johns River, where we intended to do some mullet fishing. The house sits on 10 acres of woodland he bought in 1992 with his wife, the poet Sidney Wade (they divorced in 2005), just to the south and east of Gainesville’s city limits, where the population is predominantly African-American and mostly poor. When I told him where I was staying — on the west side of town — he wrote to me, explaining how to find him: “I am far east (black side). You are in the proper zone.”
Maybe I’ve never felt like I belong in the proper zone either, but at the same time I guess sometime in my early 20s I realized I wasn’t great. Powell most certainly is — maybe too great. His feel for the human voice might be a knowledge akin to a calculator’s of arithmetic.
What Powell does with language and sound, with timing, rhythm and cadence, is a thing of strange precision. Here is the simple opening of the title story of his third book, from 1991, a collection called “Typical,” in which the narrator, John Payne, a laid-off steelworker, looks at his life and concludes he is an unpleasant person of little worth:
Yesterday a few things happened. Every day a few do. My dog beat up another dog. He does this when he can. It’s his living, more or less, though I’ve never let him make money doing it. He could. Beating up other dogs is his thing. He means no harm by it, expects other dogs to beat him up — no anxiety about it. If anything makes him nervous, it’s that he won’t get a chance to beat up or be beaten up. He’s healthy. I don’t think I am.
This is what happened when he debuted, in 1984:
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago things looked very different. The publication of Powell’s first novel, “Edisto,” in 1984, occasioned a reception almost like a coronation. The comic chronicle of Simons Everson Manigault — a linguistically precocious 12-year-old assigned by his mother to gather material in preparation for literary greatness — “Edisto” was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was also one of Time magazine’s five best fiction books of the year and exuberantly reviewed across the country. Walker Percy said it reminded him of “The Catcher in the Rye” — except, he said, “it’s better.” The book was excerpted in The New Yorker, won Powell a Whiting Award and a Rome Prize and got him a job teaching fiction writing at the University of Florida, and to this day it often appears on various critics’ best-of lists.
So what it’s like to be 25 years past a comparison to Salinger? From 2002 to 2006, I spent five summers in St. Petersburg, Russia, sharing that phantasmagoria with Powell. Seeing him pound through the city, glasses affixed to sturdy nose, fishing shirt stuffed with literature and pills, lips pouting, jaw clenched, I saw what greatness looks like on vacation. It’s a wonderful sight.
Bonus: Sizing up one of my overcooked paragraphs in 2002, Powell regarded me sourly and said this: “Mr. Deuel, there are warm potatoes sitting in your sentences doing warm harm.” I’ve never written the same.
Thank you, Mr. Powell.
via Padgett Powell’s Southern Discomfort – NYTimes.com.
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