You & Me: A Novel
- Padgett Powell
- 208 pp.
- Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark
- September 17, 2012
In a set-up that brings to mind “Waiting for Godot,” the aimless prattle of two modern dudes feels like hanging out with witty friends.
Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark
“Somewhere between Bakersfield, California, and Jacksonville, Florida — we think spiritually nearer the former and geographically nearer the latter — two weirdly agreeable dudes are on a porch in a not upscale neighborhood, apparently within walking distance of a liquor store, talking a lot. It’s all they have. Things disturb them. Some things do not.”
This beginning paragraph of You & Me: A Novel is all the setting, context and character description the reader will get. The rest of the book is made up of the two dudes’ conversation. The characters are not named; the novel contains no plot.
The dialogue, delightful in its use of rhythm and contrast and by turns profound, improvisatory, original and silly, provides great entertainment. The book jacket dubs You and Me “a hilarious Southern send-up of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.” The comparison is helpful, for Beckett’s play, a classic example of the theater of the absurd, refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. Here’s how that conflict plays out in You & Me.
“It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter.”
“What doesn’t matter?”
“I guess I am saying that nothing matters.”
“I have no idea what you are saying, but when you say, ‘it doesn’t matter’, what is the antecedent to ‘it’?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter what the antecedent to it is.”
“You have lost your mind.”
“Yes, and it doesn’t matter.”
You & Me is hardly bleak, for the two dudes run quickly to silliness. In a discussion about living every day of our lives as if it’s the last day of our life, they come up with an acronym, LEDOOLAIITLDOOL, which one says “sounds like a Mayan god.” Then they talk about what they’d do if they followed this philosophy:
“Live on the Left Bank! Speak French well!”
“I want to put on my own shoes, or someone else’s come to think of it, in an advancing tide of lava!”
“Ivory-billed woodpecker! Get me to that swamp!”
“Dancing classes in the afternoon!”
They also talk about death and about singing “Funky Town” to Charon the boatman on the bank of the Styx; Jayne Mansfield; the Depression; an entire family they make up on the spot with the surname “Becalmed”; and the relative merits of fishing from the bank or a boat. The dialogue is broken up into one- or two-page segments, each headed not with a chapter number but with an ampersand: &.
Padgett Powell has written five novels, including in 2009 The Interrogative Mood, in which every sentence was a question: “Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse?” While that book might have been dismissed as a literary stunt, Powell’s juxtaposition of the thought provoking and the ridiculous, and his skill with the rhythms of language, earned the book a Best Book of the Year honor from Amazon.com. These same attributes are displayed in You & Me.
Reading You & Me is like having a relaxed and pointless conversation with a couple of your quickest-witted and funniest friends. Like many such conversations, it moves quickly without going anywhere. It can be considered a 208-page demonstration of the expression, “talking to hear your head rattle,” talking for the sheer joy of language and for the fun of making word play and going off on tangents. It is a pleasant read, poses a lot of interesting questions and gives a wide variety of unexpected answers.
Susan Storer Clark, a frequent contributor to The Independent, recently completed “The Monk Woman’s Daughter,” a historical novel set in the 19th-century United States. A former broadcast journalist and retired civil servant, Clark has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years and lives with her husband, Rich, in Silver Spring, Md., where they hold daft conversations of their own.