Snakes, arm wrestling and childhood adventures in Padgett Powell’s “Indigo”
Indigo: arm wrestling, snake rescue and other things in between
By Padget Powell
Some literary voices are so distinctive that they mark a writer’s authority from the first page. Indigo, Florida-born author Padgett Powell’s first nonfiction book begins:
“Against its reputation as a drunken pastime, against the idea that it is stupid, arm wrestling most effectively does what is required of sport, that is to translate the confusion of success and failure in life as knowable: who wins and who doesn’t.
This singular voice will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Powell’s work, especially his first novel, Editorial, a picaresque coming-of-age story that has become something of a cult classic. Without wanting to dwell on the subject, here is the intriguing first sentence of this novel: “I’m in Bluffton on a truancy frenzy, we call it cuts, but all you do is get out of the unfenced yard for recreation, where three hundred people leaning over the children shoot at marbles.
Either way, a voice like this is sure to grab the reader.
Like Tom Drury, another little-known but equally talented writer, Padgett Powell inhabits his own literary universe, and sets the rules for our reader participation. His wide range of “difficult” novels and short stories almost guarantee him a certain level of obscurity, but readers familiar with these works would never confuse him with anyone else.
And now Powell fans have a different take on the stubbornly individualistic author. The tests in Indigo encompass, among other things, a profile of Cleve Dean, a former arm-wrestling champion who “ballooned nearly seven hundred pounds”; memories of a turbulent childhood in Florida; an original tour of the French Quarter of New Orleans; and insightful (if frustratingly brief) assessments of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Donald Barthelme, and William Trevor.
Powell is also a big dog lover. In the essay “Spode,” a moving tribute to a beloved American Staffordshire terrier, he goes to the heart of our love for these domesticated creatures:
“A dog is the only friend you can have in life who will accompany you wherever you want to go, when you want to go, without asking questions or putting on pants… You do not perceive in a dog the mechanism of choice, or preference, or judgment, or valuing one thing over another… He comes with you because you are you. You? Let’s go! Everything is fine with you, he said, and you can’t help but like a thing that says that.
In a short article praising Denis Johnson, the brilliant writer who died in 2017, Powell spends much of his time talking about a “dumb piece” he once wrote for a fellow author who, at first sight, has nothing to do with Johnson. . It ends up going back to the author in question, so no harm, no fault, but readers looking for a more linear approach would be well advised to look elsewhere.
In “Saving the Indigo”, Powell describes his lifelong obsession with encountering “one of the last indigo snakes in the free world” in the wooded landscapes of Florida and Georgia. Her journey to find the endangered reptile involves following several experts in the field. When he finally achieves his goal, Powell pauses for a moment before the snake wrestler he is accompanying urges him to act quickly:
“The snake is on this pile of logs and limbs and stuff that becomes, you know, peat, and it faces, and not far from it, a kind of cliff in the heap of forest detritus which falls abruptly, and on this cliff grow prodigious very thick blackberries. If she crawls only six inches, she will be in heavy, inextricable heather. She can probably just walk into the slash stack where she is without moving. I don’t know why she hasn’t disappeared already.
Charming, grumpy, idiosyncratic – many adjectives describe the tone and texture of Padgett Powell’s work. And if Indigo encourages readers to return to his iconic work of Southern fiction, so much the better.
Authors biography :
Lee Polevoi, Brain Magazine chief literary critic, will publish a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash, in 2022.
For Intello magazine
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