Padgett Powell conveys ‘whimsical profundity’ in essay collection, ‘Indigo’

Courtesy of Catapult
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Courtesy of Catapult

Credit: File

Credit: File

Wide ranging topics run the gamut from endangered snakes to Bermuda shorts.

Florida native Padgett Powell made his literary debut in 1984 with “Edisto,” a justly celebrated coming-of-age tale set in South Carolina’s then coastal wilderness, for which the author has a deep affinity.

With its sly social commentary on the encroachment of Sunbelt capital, “Edisto” thrived on muted hilarity and Lowcountry swing, and it was a finalist for a National Book Award.

Powell has since published five additional novels and three short-story collections. He’s received many awards, such as the Prix de Rome Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He served 35 years in the University of Florida’s MFA creative writing program, “teaching what cannot be taught,” a saw which Padgett Powell, a card, only half-believes.

Always a wild jack personality, he was a daredevil writer even as a Florence, South Carolina, high school student in 1970, when he was arrested for publishing an underground newspaper called Tough (expletive).

Later, in the University of Houston’s creative writing program, he improved himself under the tutelage of the late Donald Barthelme, the innovative short-story master who Powell reveres throughout “Indigo: Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving, and Some Things in Between,” his new collection of essays on family and food, places and painters, authors and other animals, too.

At first look, Powell would seem to have been a renegade from the South’s dilapidated gentry — indeed, he describes himself in boyhood as “a bourgeois snot.” In “Indigo’s” wonderful autobiographical piece, “Hitting Back,” with its accompanying picture album, his family appears to have been a mostly hard-drinking tribe, bookish and eccentric.

“[There] is photographic evidence of enough nut blood and thespian gameness in my clan,” he writes, “to get any but the truly uninterested off to a well-grounded start in the art of assembling strange truths in less strange lies…”

Like the filmmaker Werner Herzog, Powell wants to know how things work, and this intellectual curiosity distinguishes “Indigo.” The straightforward travel piece, “Bermuda,” for instance, elaborates on the proper construction of Bermuda shorts. In his article about C. Ford Riley, the Florida “habitat artist,” he interrogates Riley about his technique and method. (He “works through a mirror” situated about eight feet from his paintings of turkeys, creek bottoms and longleaf pine.)

Norman Mailer was Powell’s first major influence, until a professor gave him William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!,” which, he says, was, and is, “as close to a religious experience as I am likely to suffer on Earth.”

In “Indigo’s” more cosmic moments, Powell teases a running theme he calls the “God v. Darwin v. neither debate,” citing, for example, redfish and speckled trout, “two fish (that) constitute as strong an argument as there is for the brilliance of Darwin or God.”

He balances these cerebral interests with an attraction to the bushy world, where wood is good and true. It’s a clever double-game game, and, over the course of this book’s 18 pieces, mainly published during the 21st century, he plays it well, revealing a complex persona of whimsical profundity, and, equally, its reverse: “I have been lying, and the exhaustion of lying now suggests I relax and just say a few things and admit that the things I have already presented are bogus here and there.”

As usual, this is only half-right, because Powell is a formidable journalist with an obsession for detail. In “Cleve Dean,” a riotous profile of the world champion arm wrestler from Pavo, Powell outlines the intricacies, strategies and secrecies of this surprisingly dangerous sport, which Dean “revolutionized” with his “top roll.” The man was huge: “The thumbhole in Cleve Dean’s custom-made bowling ball will accommodate a banana.”

The centerpiece of “Indigo” is “Flannery O’Conner,” a chaotic disquisition, originally delivered at Columbia University, that’s crammed with splendid outbursts, manifesto-like blasts and non sequiturs: “Jesus I now know, though Flannery would cane me for this, is the invisible friend that we tell children after age 5 they may not have … My Jesus wears a Pink Panther suit dirty at the knees.”

Powell is a rough-and-ready outdoorsman, or nearly so: “I am an amateur ignorant of every plant and bird in the woods, stumbling on the rocks, after the snake.” His emotionally charged conclusion, “Saving the Indigo,” documents his lifelong quest to find the endangered indigo snake in the wild. And, with the help of the noble Orianne Society, he does so, locating one in “The palmetto rhizomes (that) emerge from and turn back into the bank like giant snakes themselves, a metropolis of thick rhizomes like elephant trunks in mud.”

Powell wonders, Can the indigo be saved? “Or is it the case that an effort to save a snake would be the very most hopeless effort in the entire lost world, the lostest of lost causes that has left us our mostly ruined planet?”

Enriching “Indigo,” melancholies rise through hidden shale. Throughout these seemingly randomly chosen essays, with their comic veneer and powerful acerbic energy, the author steers himself and the reader into a deeper blue, and it becomes clear that this is the story of Padgett Powell’s life, or, short of an actual memoir, it may be held in regard as such.

In his 1996 sequel, “Edisto Revisited,” he wrote, “The road out of Edisto is the best one I know to drive with nothing, or a lot, on your mind … the road out of Edisto is enough.” It’s a road that he continues to pilot in his serpentine way.


NONFICTION

“Indigo: Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving, and Some Things in Between”

by Padgett Powell

Catapult

272 pages, $16.95