Trick or Treat
Trick or Treat
"Trick or Treat," a short story by Padgett Powell, originally appeared in Harper's magazine in November 1993 and later was included in the author's collection of short stories, Aliens of Affection (1998). "Trick or Treat" is a brief glimpse into the life of a frustrated and lonely housewife, Mrs. Hollingsworth, who allows herself to be seduced by a smart-mouthed twelve-year-old boy named Jimmy Teeth. Mrs. Hollingsworth is not only at odds with her life, but she also has a love/hate relationship with the South, where she lives. "Trick or Treat" won a 1995 O. Henry Award and was anthologized in the award publication, The O. Henry Prize Stories 1995.
Powell is a renowned southern writer, having lived most of his life in Florida. Some would argue that Florida is not southern the way Georgia or Alabama are, but one reading of Powell's fiction may change their minds. He imbues his characters and settings with a distinctly southern tang which is not overdone but at the same time is impossible to ignore. Powell's work is both funny and emotionally evocative. Many critics have described his use of language as lush. His characters are just fantastical enough to entertain without being entirely unbelievable or unsympathetic.
Padgett Powell was born in Gainesville, Florida, on April 25, 1952, to Albine Batts Powell and
Bettyre Palmer Powell, a brewmaster and a schoolteacher, respectively. He grew up in various cities in Florida and South Carolina. In college, Powell struggled with his English classes, opting for chemistry as a major. He graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1975 and went on to graduate school at the University of Tennessee. Powell lost interest in school and left before he finished. He moved to Texas and became a roofer.
Powell enrolled in the University of Houston's Master of Fine Arts program in fiction writing in hopes of meeting women. He studied under post-modernist author Donald Barthelme, and while a student, he developed and wrote his first novel, Edisto. Powell graduated in 1982 and, in 1984, an excerpt of Edisto appeared in the New Yorker. Later that year, the novel was published separately. The esteemed American author Saul Bellow praised Powell as a promising new writer. Edisto won recognition as a National Book Award nominee for first novel in 1984 and was listed as one of the five best books of 1984 by Time magazine, and the novel garnered the Whiting Foundation Writer's Award for Powell. The author also received an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters' Rome Fellowship in literature for two years, 1986 and 1988.
Also in 1984, Powell took a job teaching writing at the University of Florida, back in his birth home of Gainesville. His next two books, short story collections Typical and A Woman Named Drown, were not as successful as Powell's first novel. Powell kept writing; however, his struggling writing career and alcoholism brought him to an all-time low. He made a bargain with himself that he would not drink any more alcohol until he made a million dollars, and the same night Harper's magazine called him about the purchase of "Trick or Treat," which went on to win an O. Henry Award and be published in the O. Henry Award collection for best short fiction. Powell later included "Trick or Treat" in his own collection, Aliens of Affection (1998). In 1996, Powell returned to the main character of Edisto in the sequel, Edisto Revisited.
In 2000, Powell published Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men, an atypical novel based on one of the characters in "Trick or Treat." This work uses an avant-garde style that plays with the narrative line, using a series of vignettes to illustrate this unusual character rather than a standard plot of rising action, climax, and resolution.
As of 2006, Powell continued to teach writing at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he lived with his wife, poet Sidney Wade, and their two daughters.
"Trick or Treat" takes place in the southern United States. It begins with Mrs. Hollingsworth walking to the grocery store dressed in lizard-skin cowboy boots and other unspecified strange clothes that she calls her "costumes." She has attracted the attention of a twelve-year-old boy, who has been watching her walk by for weeks from his yard. He is attracted to her and wants to make a pass at her. He finally takes the risk of talking to her. Mrs. Hollingsworth philosophizes about her relationship with the South, and the boy asks her if she is crazy. Offended, Mrs. Hollingsworth stalks off, and the boy is dismayed at having upset her and possibly ruined his chances at having sex with her.
The boy turns up at her house with a lawn mower at a later date. Mrs. Hollingsworth opens the door and looks him over in his tee-shirt and cut-off, frayed shorts which makes the boy self-conscious and defensive. He asks her if she wants him to cut her lawn. Meanwhile he is thinking of the lascivious things he would rather say to her. Mrs. Hollingsworth says, "No … But you can cut it anyway," and she shuts the door, testing him for worthiness by seeing whether he will cut her lawn without discussing terms. The boy whips across the front lawn, cutting the grass quickly. Mrs. Hollingsworth lets him into the backyard and recognizes his determination as a "sexual mission."
She is intrigued. While he finishes the backyard, she makes the lemonade" and brings it to the backyard where she expects him to make his first true advance, setting "the lunacy of his early need and her late fatigue in motion." The sound of a police radio nearby sends the boy over her six-foot privacy fence before she realizes he is gone. The policeman, Sergeant Garcia, asks Mrs. Hollingsworth about the lawn mower, which turns out to have been stolen from a nearby hardware store. Mrs. Hollingsworth points out the boy's fleeing footprint in the mud but cannot help him any further than that. The boy calls her later that day and says, with a disguised voice, that he will take a rain check on the lemonade then hangs up without getting an answer. Later that day, Mr. Hollingsworth comes home, and Mrs. Hollingsworth goes through her ritual kiss and welcoming, all the while thinking of the boy and what it will be like to kiss him. She thinks of their impending affair as "an act of survival" because she is "anonymous" to her family, but not to the boy.
Two weeks later Halloween takes place, a holiday that Mrs. Hollingsworth dislikes for its stupid costumes and paranoia about candy that drives some people to use a metal detector to check for dangerous inclusions. The boy turns up on her porch in a suit and fedora and asks to be let in before he is spotted. He is afraid that his father and older brother are going to try and keep him away from Mrs. Hollingsworth's house. She lets him into her house and is struck by his likeness to Mickey Rooney's character Andy Hardy. But rather than hang his hat, the boy tosses his suit and hat into the trash compactor, revealing the same tee-shirt and cut-off shorts. The boy reveals that the suit and hat were a disguise to hide from his father and brother, not a Halloween costume. This makes Mrs. Hollingsworth laugh, but she stops herself, afraid that she will offend the boy. She asks him if he steals a lot and if he has been arrested. He avoids the questions, teasing her that she talks too much. Then he confesses that the only time he was caught was, ironically, when he took a red WD-40 straw, an item which is very small and costs nothing by itself.
Mrs. Hollingsworth asks him what his name is and he tells her it is Jimmy. He wants it to be first names only, "like a hot line," but Mrs. Hollingsworth insists on full names. His name is Jimmy Teeth. She decides he must not be lying about his name because it is so unusual. She introduces herself to him as Janice Halsey, which he knows is not her name but does not catch on that it is her maiden name.
They sit in companionable silence for a while. Jimmy finally asks her if she does like the South after all, harkening back to their first conversation. They both agree that they like the South. Then Mrs. Hollingsworth tells him that the South is "a vale of tears that were shed a long time ago. It's a vale of dry tears." She tries to explain it further when Jimmy just sits there nodding in agreement. Jimmy is worried his plan is not going to work, that she is too "square," but then Mrs. Hollingsworth takes his hand. They look at each other over their clasped hands, nearly in tears from unspeakable emotions. Jimmy suddenly worries how to explain himself if someone walks in on them, and he laughs out loud when he realizes his lawn mower and his disguise clothes are gone. He worries that his laugh is inappropriate but then realizes that "nothing was inappropriate." Mrs. Hollingsworth decides that in entering this affair she cannot be an authority figure over Jimmy because that would make their relationship immoral.
Mrs. Hollingsworth tells Jimmy she will pay him eight dollars for the lawn mowing rather than five if he promises not to tell her husband. He agrees. Then she asks him if he still goes trick-or-treating. "No'm, I quit that." Mrs. Hollingsworth is pleased with his answer, and the matter is settled. She will have sex with him. Mrs. Hollingsworth likens herself to Orpheus, ascending "from the underworld with instructions to not look back, with some comical but not ungratifying sex mixed in."
Sergeant Garcia comes to Mrs. Hollingsworth's yard to investigate a report of a stolen lawnmower. His arrival causes Jimmy Teeth to run away because the lawn mower he used was indeed stolen. Mrs. Hollingsworth, having just been interrupted in her role of being seduced by Jimmy, looks at Garcia and thinks, "sex with cops."
See Mrs. Hollingsworth
Mr. Hollingsworth has been married to Mrs. Hollingsworth for fifteen years. He works all day long. Their marriage is not unhappy, but on some level Mrs. Hollingsworth is upset by how perfect everything is. It is not clear if Mr. Hollingsworth is aware of her feelings.
Mrs. Hollingsworth, the protagonist of "Trick or Treat," is a thirty-seven-year-old unhappy housewife who starts an affair with a twelve-year-old neighborhood boy. She has three children, one older than twelve and two younger. She has been married for fifteen years and leads a life of soap operas and tropical vacations, but she is dissatisfied with it all. Mrs. Hollingsworth enters into her affair with Jimmy Teeth as a means of survival, a way to be a person again rather than just a wife and mother. There are allusions to Mrs. Hollingsworth's fine education: her classical reference to the myth of Orpheus, who descends into the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice; her comment that she can read Madame Bovary in the original French; and her cryptic ponderings about the South as a vale of dry tears.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- How does your family celebrate Halloween? How is Halloween celebrated in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and other observant countries? Write a story that takes place during Halloween and exhibits unusual customs, whether real or fictional.
- The southern United States has a rich cultural tradition. Pick one aspect, such as music, literature, food, or pastimes, and research it thoroughly. Present your findings to your classmates in a creative fashion. You could make a poster or a diorama, write a song or create a dish to pass, or make up a game to play, for example.
- Mickey Rooney is mentioned in the story by Mrs. Hollingsworth when she compares Jimmy Teeth in his suit and hat disguise to this Hollywood actor. Watch one of Rooney's Andy Hardy movies and write a one-page response to the film, explaining why Mrs. Hollingsworth compares Jimmy to Mickey Rooney. Do they look similar? Behave similarly? Something else?
- In the United States, there have been a few high-profile cases of older women convicted of statutory rape because they conducted a sexual relationship with a minor male. Mary Kay Letourneau and Debra Lafave are two examples. From a different perspective, although fictional, is the cult classic film, Harold and Maud. Watch the movie as well as research a case of statutory rape, involving an older woman and a young boy. Write an essay that compares the movie, the case, and Powell's short story, concluding with your opinions on age of consent and statutory rape.
When the story opens, Mrs. Hollingsworth is walking down the street, dressed in odd clothes, and talking to herself about the South. She has a love/hate/love relationship with the South. She tells Jimmy that she likes the South, but its inconsistencies also make her crazy, and she cannot ignore them: "stray pets collected and neutered by alcoholics, unless it rains; automotive mechanical intelligence in inverse proportion to dental health; and Halloween." Out of boredom, she thinks of going insane, as if it were a choice. Jimmy's arrival in her life spares her from that path, and instead Mrs. Hollingsworth takes up with the young boy, a decision that many people would revile as statutory rape.
Jimmy Teeth is a twelve-year-old boy who is fixated on having sex with Mrs. Hollingsworth, a woman who is old enough to be his mother. He eventually gets up the nerve to talk to her and then visit her house. Jimmy has a freckled face that is round, like an uncarved pumpkin. His thoughts are full of profanities although he never says them aloud. He likes to wear tee-shirts with inappropriate sayings on them with the idea that Mrs. Hollingsworth will be impressed with his wit. He has young stringy legs but acts as mature as he can, given his age and inexperience.
At the beginning of the story, Jimmy does not know how to talk to women and starts off badly with Mrs. Hollingsworth, offending her by asking her if she is crazy, which is not far from the truth. Skipping school and stealing a lawn mower, Jimmy tries to initiate the affair by mowing her lawn and nearly succeeds. Despite his tribulations in getting close to Mrs. Hollingsworth, she is actually an easy catch because she is looking for something new or different to lend interest to her life. At the end of the story, Jimmy comes into her house, brave, determined, and mostly assured of success. Mrs. Hollingsworth accepts his swagger and his implicit invitation. Jimmy worries a little about being caught in her kitchen, but it does not stop him from his mission.
Sexuality is a central theme in Powell's short story. Jimmy, at twelve years of age, is beginning puberty, a time when the human body matures from childhood to adulthood. An important aspect of this maturation is that the body readies itself for reproduction. Teenagers, full of new hormones from puberty, become interested in sex. Jimmy's pursuit of an older woman is daring and unusual, but his thoughts about sex, while still immature, are not. Since the story is told largely from Mrs. Hollingsworth's point of view, the reader does not learn directly why Jimmy is attracted to the housewife who is old enough to be his mother.
Contemporary society does not condone sex between adults and minors—people under the age of eighteen. Mrs. Hollingsworth deliberates whether to enter into a relationship with Jimmy, but she barely considers the question of pedophilia, a deviant behavior in which an adult engages in sex or sexual activity with a child. She recalls worrying about it with her own children but lets that thought go immediately and does not dwell on it. Mrs. Hollingsworth, in the final scene of the story, sees Jimmy as mature in some ways which in her view makes it okay for them to enter into a sexual relationship. Dissatisfied with her life and her family, including her husband, she looks forward to a relationship with Jimmy, "with some comical but not ungratifying sex mixed in."
Ennui (pronounced awn-WEE), a word borrowed From French, denotes a feeling of continual weariness or melancholy which is not easily relieved. In Powell's short story, the character of Mrs. Hollingsworth exhibits ennui. Mrs. Hollingsworth attributes her sense of ennui to her boring husband and children as well as to her troubled relationship with the South. This ennui about the South is identified at the beginning of the story: "It loves me, it loves me not. I love it, I love it not." Mrs. Hollingsworth wears ridiculous clothes when she goes grocery shopping in an attempt to shake off her melancholy. But it is Jimmy Teeth who rescues her with his underage bravado and unusual—and risky—proposition. Although the end of the story pushes the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior, it is weirdly uplifting within its own terms because the point-of-view character, Mrs. Hollingsworth, is finally fighting to be free of her ennui.
Machismo (pronounced ma-KEYS-mo), a word borrowed from Spanish, denotes an exaggerated sense of masculinity. Jimmy Teeth overcomes his young age with machismo to appeal to Mrs. Hollingsworth and attract her attention. He tries to talk to her (and thinks of even dirtier things to say that he believes are grown up perhaps because they are crass) but comes across as smart-mouthed. He mows her lawn as a way to spend time with her and get her to notice him but has to run away when the police come to reclaim the stolen lawnmower. Last, he appears on her doorstep dressed in a suit and fedora, like an old fashioned movie star, but the costume is really just a disguise to hide from his father and older brother. With confidence borrowed from machismo, Jimmy stuffs the disguise into the trash compactor and sits down at Mrs. Hollingsworth's kitchen table. This last visit finally wins her over as Jimmy appears to her to be more than just a boy from the neighborhood.
Escape is sought by both Mrs. Hollingsworth and Jimmy Teeth. Mrs. Hollingsworth is dissatisfied and bored and wants some kind of change, although she does not directly face and try to solve her problems. Instead, she turns outward from her dissatisfaction with her family life and toward a neighborhood boy. Jimmy Teeth wants to escape his youth and be grown up enough to date older women like Mrs. Hollingsworth. This combination of desires makes Jimmy's proposition of a sexual relationship to Mrs. Hollingsworth possible rather than ridiculous. Together, in their illicit union, Mrs. Hollingsworth and Jimmy anticipate being able to escape temporarily from the confining aspects of their separate lives. But escapism never provides a permanent resolution from the problems one avoids.
"Trick or Treat" is set in the contemporary American South, although the specific state and city are not given. The time period is established by present-day references, such as Jimmy's tee-shirt advertising bubblegum which says "JUST BLOW ME," Volvos, a Lawn-Boy mower, Saran Wrap, WD-40, and running a metal detector over bags of Halloween candy. The South as a region is clearly established by Mrs. Hollingsworth, who talks about the South throughout the story, wondering at her mixed feelings about her environment. The South has a rich literary history because many fiction writers who grew up there, like Powell, use it as the setting for their stories.
A motif is a recurring image, idea, or detail. Motifs often support or underscore a theme, and they lend cohesion to the structure. In Powell's story, pumpkins are a reoccurring motif, which suggest innocence. When Mrs. Hollingsworth first notices Jimmy standing in his yard watching her, she describes him as "an uncarved, unlit pumpkin" and "a portrait of innocence." At the end of the story, after Mrs. Hollingsworth has decided to accept Jimmy's proposition, she recalls that "speaking pumpkin head on a fence." The distinction is made between a jack-o'-lantern (which is a pumpkin carved with a face and lit from the inside with a candle) and a regular pumpkin. Jack-o'-lanterns have a semblance of intelligence (the face) and life (the candle). Featureless, a pumpkin is unassuming and blank. Jimmy must fight past her perception of his young pumpkin-head to be noticed and taken seriously as a "suitor, or whatever he was."
Given that "trick or treat" is the call children use on Halloween to bring adults to their doors with gifts of one sort or another, the title of this story seems to be used in an ironic or lurid way. Effective titles are always significant, drawing readers' attention to the essence or main idea of a work. On the surface, Jimmy comes to the door with a trick or treat for Mrs. Hollingsworth, a reversal of the holiday custom. Moreover, Mrs. Hollingsworth's willingness to engage the boy sexually, giving him the "treat" of sexual experience, may well turn out to be a sordid "trick," conditioning the boy to become a child molester as an adult and turning Mrs. Hollingsworth into a prostitute (of sorts) if this sexual encounter can be called a "trick," the common expression for a sexual encounter between a prostitute and someone who pays for her services.
Generation Y is an American cultural reference to people born between the late 1970s through the 1990s. As a term, it correlates to Generation X, known also as the post-baby boom generation. Generation Y as a group is a little difficult to categorize because it is still developing; those who fall within this cultural generation include high school students, college students, and people in their early thirties who are just getting started with their careers and families. Also, with this generation there is no catalyzing event, such as was World War II for the baby boomers.
What is understood about Generation Y is that members of this group experienced their formative years during a millennial rollover and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. They have no significant memories of the cold war between the United States and the U.S.S.R. Generation Y was the first generation to grow up using personal computers, and thus its members have been given many other nicknames associated with technology such as the Net Generation and the Google Generation. Generation Y constituents grew up in an age of economic expansion, diversity, and expanding gay rights, although as of 2006 they appear not necessarily more liberal than their predecessors. Powell's character Jimmy probably belongs to Generation Y to judge by his obscene tee-shirt, a fashion style that became more culturally acceptable after the 1990s.
Bull Market of the 1990s
The 1990s was a period of speedy economic growth, during which the stock market was described by economists as bullish. A bull market describes a long-term trend when investor confidence is high and when the economy is good for many consumers. A bear market, by contrast, refers to a period when investors are pessimistic. A famous and extreme bear market in U.S. history occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
1990s: Following the recession of the 1970s and the 1980s, the United States experiences an economic boom. This boom is largely tied to the explosive growth of personal computers, the Internet, and related technologies.
Today: After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. economy stalls, and Americans experience an economic recession. Corporations cut back staff, gas prices rise, and the real estate market in many parts of the country goes soft.
1990s: Iraq invades Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. The United Nations comes to Kuwait's defense, led by U.S. forces. Most of the actual conflict takes place during January and February 1991. Kuwait is liberated, and the war won by February 28, 1991.
Today: The United States invades Iraq on March 20, 2003, intending to overthrow Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who is captured on December 13, 2003, and put on trial by the interim Iraqi government for crimes against humanity. Iraq meanwhile is torn apart by civil strife, and U.S. forces are unable to withdraw and ensure the safety of Iraqi citizens. The U.S. occupation receives strong criticism from all over the world, but a solution for stability is not readily apparent.
1990s: Grunge culture, propagated by Seattle garage bands, such as Nirvana, is popular among American youth. It is characterized by loose-fitting, layered worn clothes. Alternative rock music, an outgrowth of punk and indie rock, is at its height. Generation X is associated with grunge culture.
Today: Hip hop music and fashion are in the mainstream, following the popularity of gangsta rap styles in the 1990s. Hip hop fashion for men is characterized by baggy, low-slung pants, expensive sneakers, a durag (pronounced DOO-rag, a kerchief tied on the head), and heavy gold or platinum jewelry. Women also wear prominent jewelry, but their clothing tends to be closefitting and revealing, especially at the waist.
The bull market of the 1990s was due in large part to the dot-com boom. Personal computers and Internet technologies grew exponentially as computers found their way into almost every aspect of life, including schools, businesses, and homes. People became concerned that the dot-com bubble would eventually burst because stock speculation and excessive confidence over-inflated the value of many dot-com companies. That bubble burst in the spring of 2000. The burst was a complicated process which included a ruling against Microsoft by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 3, 2000; a drop in business spending following the millennial rollover; and a market correction in March 2000. The deflation of the dot-com bubble turned this bull market into a bear market. Mrs. Hollingsworth's family is doing well financially, which may be because of the 1990s bull market economy in which they are living. She acknowledges the costly landscaping of her property and their annual vacations abroad. Also, her husband is making enough money so that Mrs. Hollingsworth can afford to stay home even after her children are in school full-time.
Halloween is a secular holiday celebrated in the United States on October 31. The name of this holiday is derived from All Hallows Eve, or the night before All Hallows Day, which is also called All Saints' Day. All Saints' Day, a religious holiday for Catholics, is observed on November 1. Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day to November 1 in the eighth century so as to coincide with the holidays already being celebrated by pagans. One of these pagan holidays, the one celebrated in Ireland, was Samhain (pronounced SOW-in), the beginning of winter. This holiday marked a time when the boundaries between the living and dead were permeable.
In modern tradition, children dress up in fantastical costumes on Halloween and visit their neighbors, calling out "trick or treat," a cheerful threat which earns the child a treat (often a piece of candy) as a bribe for their not playing a trick. Some people, reacting to reports of poison, razor blades, and other dangerous inclusions in this candy taken from strangers, go to extreme measures to check their children's treat bags. Mrs. Hollingsworth's neighbors, who run a metal detector over their kids' bags, express this cautionary attitude. In reality, many parents find a cursory examination for unwrapped or unusual pieces of candy to suffice. Incendiary reports about candy that has been tampered with say more about modern paranoia and isolation from one's neighbors than they do about what this secular holiday means to its celebrants.
When Powell's first novel, Edisto (1984), was reviewed by critics, many praised Powell. For example, Ron Loewinsohn of the New York Times praises him as "an extravagantly talented writer." Once a student of the post-modernist author Donald Barthelme, Powell incorporates occasional experimental methods, which are both admired and criticized. Overall though, he is regarded as a southern writer with a flair for lush language, southern dialect, humor, and original ideas. T. Coraghessan Boyle, in a review of A Woman Named Drown for the New York Times Book Review, admires Powell's "distinctive, understated humor." A People Weekly review by Campbell Geeslin of the same novel agrees, calling Powell "very funny." In a review of Typical, Powell's first collection of short stories, Amy Hempel, praises Powell's command of the short form, as well as his "almost unequaled ability to bring Southern colloquial speech to the page." Stefan Kanfer, reviewing Typical for Time magazine acclaims Powell's "unique gift for regional American comedy" as well as his "vigorous imagination." However, Michiko Kakutani's New York Times review of Typical was less positive. He protested that half of the collected stories were "brittle" and "seemingly unfinished," failing to "do justice to a writer as gifted as Mr. Powell." Scott Spencer, though, gave a glowing review of Edisto Revisited, describing Powell's style in terms that have become familiar. He enjoys Powell's "almost disorientingly dazzling turns of phrase," the "lushness of the writing," and his "brilliant prose."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- City Life (1970) is Donald Barthelme's third book of short stories. Barthelme was Powell's writing mentor when Powell was studying for his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing.
- The Sound and the Fury (1929), by William Faulkner, is a southern Gothic novel about the decline of the Compson family from southern nobility to vice-riddled tragedy, told in the stream-of-consciousness style.
- Set in South Carolina, Edisto (1984) is Powell's first novel, a coming-of-age story about Simons Manigault. Edisto garnered Powell much critical acclaim and remains a popular book.
- Typical (1991) is Powell's first collection of short stories. It features Powell's humor, lush language, and weird characters. The title story was selected for The Best American Short Stories 1990.
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), by Mark Twain, is a novel about a young boy and his friends and their childhood adventures while growing up in the nineteenth-century American South. Twain is famous for his use of dialect in his writing; Powell also uses southern dialect and idioms to ground his stories in their southern settings.
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), by Tennessee Williams, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a wealthy southern family being torn apart by illness, alcoholism, greed, and despair.
- Ferris Beach (1991), by Jill McCorkle, is a novel about a young woman who struggles with her identity while caught between her own self-consciousness and her admiration for the wild women in her life. The novel takes place in McCorkle's home state of North Carolina.
- Copacetic (1984) is Yusef Komunyakaa's debut collection of poetry. Komunyakaa's style imbeds striking images into jazz rhythms. Komunyakaa grew up in pre-civil rights era Louisiana, and this southern upbringing influences his poetry.
Aliens of Affection, the book in which "Trick or Treat" appeared, was no less warmly received by critics than Powell's other works. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly describes Powell's writing as "hyperactive"—but in a good way; in other words, "hip, sexy and playful." The reviewer also nominated "Trick or Treat" as the best story in the collection. A. O. Scott gives a qualified but generally positive review of Aliens of Affection in the New York Times Book Review: "Powell is an inordinately gifted writer whose stylistic inventiveness has temporarily overwhelmed his perceptive acuity." Francis Hwang focuses on Powell's southern affinity in his review of the collection and describes the stories as "refreshingly vulgar, deeply humane." Elizabeth Brunazzi agrees that "Trick or Treat" is the best story in Aliens of Affection, but suggests a limitation in her opinion that this story is the only one "in which Powell successfully defines a female character." Brunazzi's review is mostly positive, celebrating Powell's book as "provocative" and "entertaining."
Powell focuses on the character Mrs. Hollingsworth from "Trick or Treat" in his slim novel, Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men. Reviews of this book are mixed. Critics still favor Powell's language, but some are puzzled by his unconventional approach. The book lacks a typical plot, called a "book of poems disguised as a novel" by New York Times Book Review critic Robert Kelly. Scott, writing about Aliens of Affection, sums up Powell's literary career so far: "In all of the stories there is the good humor and humane intelligence that make Powell's work so appealing."
Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she examines the southern Gothic elements in Powell's short story.
"Trick or Treat," by Padgett Powell, belongs to the southern Gothic subgenre of fiction. Southern Gothic is an offshoot of Gothic literature which is a genre that uses weird or supernatural elements in a story that examines social issues. Gothic is a type of romantic literature and borrows heavily from romanticism. Southern Gothic uses Gothic elements in conjunction with issues peculiar to the southern United States. The South has its own regional identity comprised of shared history, mythology, food traditions, and dialect. Predecessors to Powell in the southern Gothic subgenre include Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, and Eudora Welty—to name only a few. Powell uses Gothic elements in his story to raise it above the ordinary. Instead of being a simple tale of adolescent sexuality and mid-life disillusionment, "Trick or Treat" is a story of more mythic proportions, replete with talking pumpkins heads, adulterous lemonade, and costumed housewives walking to and from the grocery store.
Characters in Gothic stories exhibit a combination of sympathetic and grotesque elements such that the reader is intrigued but uncomfortable. "Trick or Treat" offers a glimpse into the life of a happily married but enraged housewife, Mrs. Hollingsworth. She both loves and hates the South. She is bored; she is lonely despite having a family. To counter her ennui, Mrs. Hollingsworth dresses strangely and talks to herself while she walks. The finishing Gothic touch on this character is her justification for entering into a sexual relationship with a twelve-year-old boy, supposedly as a way to save her sanity. Insane women are also a common feature in Gothic stories.
She was toying with the idea of losing herself. She did not want her mind to depart … she wanted the little craft of things that were considered her, that she considered her, to get loose and drift and turn just a little off-line.
Like Mrs. Hollingsworth, her young suitor Jimmy Teeth also combines the normal and the weird. It is not unusual for him, at twelve years old, to feel aroused around women whom he finds attractive; however, it is unusual for him to pursue a relationship with someone outside his age group, especially a woman old enough to be his mother. In the course of the story, Jimmy never mentions his mother although he does talk about his father and brother. Jimmy's mother may be missing from his life, either dead or absent, therefore complicating the reasons for Jimmy's interest in Mrs. Hollingsworth.
Jimmy's intense emotions and unusual, even absurd, behavior are components of a Gothic story. Another mark of absurdity is Jimmy's luck at stealing the lawnmower, leaping the six-foot fence to escape the police, and finally getting Mrs. Hollingsworth alone on Halloween night. He is a mixture of maturity and innocence, working hard to sell himself as old enough to be worth Mrs. Hollingsworth's notice. At the very end of "Trick or Treat," Mrs. Hollingsworth asks Jimmy if he still goes trick-or-treating. "No'm, I quit that," an answer which satisfies Mrs. Hollingsworth, as if giving up trick- or-treating were a measurable milestone for maturity. When they exchange names, Mrs. Hollingsworth is struck by Jimmy's strange last name, Teeth, concluding that it is too weird to be made up. Jimmy's last name, Teeth, is another grotesque component. The name conveys images that are both sensual and aggressive.
Gothic stories seek to establish a certain atmosphere—brooding, ruined, lonely—which Mrs. Hollingsworth invokes at the beginning of the story while she ponders her love for the South, and its love for her. "Trick or Treat" is set in the southern United States just before and on Halloween. Halloween is the perfect time of year for a Gothic story because of its natural associations with the grotesque and morbid, a time when Gothic motifs are commonly used. The fact that Mrs. Hollingsworth and Jimmy finally commit to going ahead with their relationship on Halloween night is no coincidence. The southern setting enhances the Gothic character of Powell's story. Jimmy, still unclear about the regional history, asks Mrs. Hollingsworth what she means by the "south."
"This," Mrs. Hollingsworth said, indicating with her arm the trees and air and houses and suspiring history and ennui and corruption and meanness and bottomland and chivalric humanism and people who are smart about money and people who don't have a clue and heroism and stray pets around them.
The arrival of Jimmy Teeth in Mrs. Hollingsworth's life is just the sort of grotesque event one can expect in a southern Gothic story. Her first, unnerving description of him is of "an uncarved, unlit pumpkin" peering over a picket fence and talking to her. The pumpkin head may be an allusion to Washington Irving's short story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," a frightening American Gothic tale of a headless horseman who uses a pumpkin in place of his missing head. The pumpkin head also alludes to a jack-o'-lantern, which is a pumpkin that has been hollowed out, carved with a face, lit with a candle, and thus temporarily given an impression of life.
Jimmy later calls Mrs. Hollingsworth "Bonnie" and refers to himself as "Clyde," a reference to infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow who were in love and lived life on the run as they robbed their way across the Texas countryside in the 1930s. Bonnie and Clyde are tragic, romantic figures, who pursued lives of love and revenge that eventually killed them. This reference, therefore, casts Mrs. Hollingsworth and Jimmy as larger than life and destined for each other. Jimmy is also referred to as "Lolito," a reference to Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, a tragic and comic story about an older man sexually obsessed with a twelve-year-old girl. Jimmy is Mrs. Hollingsworth's Lolito, and, as in Nabokov's novel, Powell has infused his story with as much potential for comedy as calamity.
The absurd and disturbing subject matter further defines Powell's story as Gothic. The most disturbing element of "Trick or Treat" is the sexual relationship that develops between Mrs. Hollingsworth and Jimmy Teeth. "It was hysterical, she was hysterical, it was perfect." In western culture it is not as common for younger men to date older women as it is for younger women to date older men; however, the twenty-five year disparity in their ages is the least upsetting aspect. No matter how she tries to justify the relationship or how mature and confident Jimmy behaves, if Mrs. Hollingsworth has sex with Jimmy she will have committed statutory rape. Even though Jimmy is consenting, the law denies him the ability to make the choice to consent until he is eighteen years of age. Legally and psychologically, Mrs. Hollingsworth is not considered a pedophile (an adult who is sexually attracted to children) but instead an ephebophile (an adult who is sexually attracted to adolescents). They are mutually exclusive terms. Mrs. Hollingsworth, loosened from the moorings of her safe and boring southern landing, lets herself drift out into these dark waters.
The excess of emotion and the dark themes of Powell's story mark it as a Gothic in a southern setting, resplendent with the absurd, the grotesque, and the psychologically disturbing. The characters of Mrs. Hollingsworth and Jimmy Teeth are at once familiar and yet twisted, discomforting. They turn to each other, as unlikely a pairing as they seem: a smart-mouthed youth and a well-educated housewife. For Mrs. Hollingsworth, this may just be the love that she has long sought from the South. For Jimmy, Mrs. Hollingsworth is both his conquest and his conqueror. Seeing no farther into their relationship than the first moment of its formation, the reader understands the Gothic tragedy of this story is the formation of that relationship itself.
Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on "Trick or Treat," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Brian J. Barr
In the following interview, Powell discusses the writing process, writing about the South, teaching, and the influence Donald Barthelme has had on him.
Padgett Powell has written some of the most lyrical and hilarious stories to emerge from the Southern literary tradition, and his characters are some of its rowdiest and most unforgettable. Powell embraces the stereotypical pickup trucks, cheap booze, and Piggly Wigglys that crowd the genre with an irascible, pessimist's wit, proving what a wonderful and silly thing it is to be Southern, and, ultimately, human. In a story titled "Typical," his character John Payne examines the circumstances that led him to realize he is "a piece of shit." In another, "Scarliotti and the Sinkhole," a brain-damaged man in a trailer perched atop a sinkhole watches The Andy Griffith Show, avoids his medication, and wonders what life will be like when his trailer finally goes underground ("The sinkhole was the kind of thing he realized that other people had when they had Jesus. He didn't need Jesus. He had a hole, and it was a purer thing than a man").
A student of Donald Barthelme, Powell first rose to national attention with his debut novel, Edisto (1984), the story of ten-year-old Simons Manigault and his wild adolescence in coastal South Carolina. It was nominated for the American Book Award for best first novel. Soon after, he began teaching at the University of Florida in his hometown of Gainesville, where he now serves as director of the MFA program. He has written three novels in addition to Edisto—A Woman Named Drown, Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men, Edisto Revisited—as well as two collections of short fiction, Typical and Aliens of Affection.
This conversation took place over a three-month span. Powell preferred that the interview take place via email because, in his words: "I rather despise the phone. Poets like the phone."
I. "What is one doing in a classroom finally but peddling his biases?"
[Brian J. Barr:] A line from your short story "Chihuahua" won't leave my head. Your character says: "A man is supposed to be a kind of diversified portfolio of modest interest in things, none of which is to get out of hand." Obviously this was meant in jest by you as the writer, considering the character was undergoing psychiatric treatment for "winder-peekin." But I'm curious—do you feel our society places too much emphasis on turning us into well-rounded people?
[Padgett Powell:] I think the pique I feel hasn't to do with well-roundedness, per se, which after all might make little Renaissance men of us, or at least a good Boy Scout. "Diversified portfolio" refers more to custodialism in life, which has irked me to no end. We are to be a clan of choosers among our "options," each of which to greater or lesser degree aggrandizes us into more and more secure positions. I have a number of dubious heroes in my writing who have renounced this custodializing, or who have not had the opportunity to renounce it (Wayne, say). As a result of my own repudiation, I am these days having to ask people the difference between term and universal life insurance, etc.
Your characters also seem to be wrangling with their own insignificance in life. Is this a reflection of your own struggle?
No. My insignificance is not to be contested.
You were a roofer in Texas for quite a few years before enrolling in the University of Houston. Because roofing is such a blue-collar work environment, did you feel a need to keep it secret from your coworkers that you wanted to write stories for a living?
I did not declare to anyone that I wanted to write any more than one would declare he wants to be President. They of course knew something was wrong with me, but I was usually the boss so not much was made of it.
I'm only asking this because I remember working on house-painting crews in Pennsylvania and they'd all laugh and shake their heads when I'd jot down story ideas in a notebook.
I was once caught reading James Dickey when I was not out at the strip club with them and there was some head shaking over this.
Do you find any sort of parallel between hard labor and the writing life?
I believed at the time I came out of that (labor) that I would be a better writer for having done it, and for being in physical shape. I still subscribe to this idea. I am suspicious of a soft body.
Is there anything about hard labor you miss?
After thirty, working for a living with your body is contraindicated. You always miss being around hard people without imaginary issues.
You've been employed at the University of Florida for twenty-plus years. In that time, have you developed any sound philosophy on the teaching of writing?
In the beginning one admits he knows not what he is doing and is possibly effective. In the end one gets tired, begins to believe he knows what he is doing, and is not possibly effective. My regular approach these days is usage instruction followed by begging for coherence. If we get past those hurdles, we might look at what I call The Rules, and at Miss O'Connor's dictum (in a letter to Hawkes): "The higher the fantasy of action, the more precise the writing, and that is the way it ought to be."
The Rules? I'm intrigued …
Rule 1 is The Gosling Rule. The story concerns the first thing the reader sees move. Rule 2 is that the problem, or the apparent and necessarily related problem, must appear soon, in the first paragraph if not the first sentence. Rule 3 is a complex function [wh = f(c1,c2,c3 … + e + t)] involving withholding. Rule 4 is the bar test: everything must be said more or less as if you might say it to a stranger in a bar. Rule 5 is the doozie quotient. Rule 7 is the 3 Questions: Did it, could it, should it happen? Before any of these rules apply the writing must place itself unmurkily on the spectrum of credulity.
These rules are not of course actually in this or any other order. Twain's early count of nineteen rules, some say twenty-two, etc., is a pretty good count that still holds up. Rules beget rules and you need to make sure some of them are sterile or you'll have overcrowding and chaos in the pen.
I've always imagined that because your voice is so strong, young writers in the MFA program at U of F find it easy to slip into mimicry, sort of aping your dialogue and characters. Do you see a lot of mini-Padgetts coming through your classroom?
One hopes not. Either it does not happen, or I am blind to it. There was some talk, I think, of Chris Bachelder's having been after me somewhat; I did not see it. I encouraged him in what he was doing. Perhaps he was. What is one doing in a classroom finally but peddling his biases?
II. "Them southern dogs is hell, ain't they?"
Since you write largely about the South, were there any writers early on that influenced you in writing about where you're from?
Yes: I read the celebrity writers of the day like Mailer and Vidal and Capote, and I regard two of those as Southern. Then I graduated to what I thought of as more serious writers, and these were Southern: Faulkner, O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, and [Walker] Percy. I regard those four writers as a family of sorts: Percy is directly out of O'Connor by Faulkner. Then I met Don Barthelme and had to adjust my view some to include him and Beckett and so forth. I think Barthelme is Southern in the extreme—he knows who lost the Civil War and how, for example. Texas is the South, one with its own little secession ongoing.
When you say Faulkner, O'Connor, and Percy are "more serious" than Gore Vidal & Co., what distinguishes them for you?
"More serious" will not win friends; arguably Vidal is about as serious as it gets. What I intended to suggest was that I had been drawn to certain writers partly owing to their celebrity: you could see Mailer and Vidal fighting on Dick Cavett.
MAILER: "I would not hit anyone
here, you're all too small."
MAILER: "Intellectually smaller."
CAVETT: "Perhaps you'd like another
chair to help contain your giant
MAILER: I'll accept the chair if you'll
CAVETT: Fingerbowls? Fingerbowls. I
don't get that. Does anyone on our
team [Vidal and Janet Flanner] want
MAILER: Think about it.
MAILER: Why don't you just read another
question off your list, Cavett?
CAVETT: Why don't you just fold it five
ways and put it where the moon don't
Capote on Carson, I think, telling Jacqueline Susann that she looked like a truck driver in drag, saying elsewhere he was an alcoholic, a drug fiend, a homosexual, and a genius. This looked like fun. Then I discovered there was an off-TV stratum: behind a Mailer was a Bellow, a Roth, and behind Vidal and Capote was a Faulkner and an O'Connor. In a sense I came to think these behind-the-scenes fellows were real writers, or more real, because they were less celebrated; they were harder, quieter, and so forth. It's just how a boy discovers the terrain. Of course it keeps going: behind all these is Shakespeare, behind him Chaucer, and so forth.
It seems that in the world of Southern lit, all writers are direct descendants of Faulkner and O'Connor and, maybe more recently, Barry Hannah. Do you find it stifling that no matter how wildly different a Southern writer's voice may be, a parallel will always be drawn to the Grandmother and Grandfather of Southern lit?
Not stifling—exhilarating, if one is going to react to the nonsense at all. It's a good bloodline, and one must be from a bloodline. To paraphrase a dogfighter I know, them Southern dogs is hell, ain't they?
Your prose is also quite dependent on rhythm and your sense of timing very powerful. On top of these writers, are you a fan of music? Does it figure into your work?
Short answer: yes. Who don't like rhythm? Even the people who can't catch a beat on the dance floor fancy that they like rhythm and are unpersuaded that they don't have a clue, which is why they are so dangerous out there.
Long answer: the second live band I heard, in 1966, after a set of pure garbage from some high school boys in a battle of the bands that confirmed everything one's parents said about the badness of rock and roll, was a band calling itself the 1% with my schoolmates Allen Collins and Bob Burns in it. We were fourteen. They transfixed us, with correct guitar, want of clutter, clean bass, and rhythm. They became Lynyrd Skynyrd. I took Latin at the same time; Latin is rhythm on the page. Latin also teaches you English in a way that you will not learn it otherwise. I kick myself today for never having done a profile of Allen Collins before he died. We were in homeroom in the tenth grade at Nathan Bedford Forrest High and he'd come in dead-tired from playing until three in the morning. They were bar none the best band anybody ever heard. I was up to Virgil at that point. When you went and saw the 1% on Saturday night, about all you could say was "mirabile dictu."
III. "I just naturally got tired or empty of the purely realistic utterance"
How long were you writing before Edisto was published? Can you remember some of the things you were working on?
I wrote figments of Edisto in college as early as 1972. Scruff Taurus wrote a column called "Fighting About Writing" in the school newspaper I edited. I did sketches of him beating up members of the English department there, and used them to try to charm the professor I eventually would model the Doctor on. It worked. She said the writing was good. I said the things were a joke, cartoons. She said she knew that but the prose was strong. Here was the birth of the literary mother. She soon found out I had not read Faulkner and, appalled, gave me her copy of Absalom, Absalom! That is the birth of the literarily mothered boy.
This writing and some more that would become the early stuff of Edisto was stolen in a roofing truck in San Antonio around 1976. I envisioned my pages blowing about the desert at Eagle Pass, Texas, where I imagined the truck being taken into Mexico. I think I had about forty pages, the first three chapters of the book, when I met Barthelme in 1981. He said, "You've thought about this a bit." "Yes." "You'll settle down. You're just nervous. Give me all you've got." He was referring to a certain ersatz-Faulkner alignment things had taken. The book was then taking more literally the Doctor's desire that her son sound like a writer, perhaps specifically like those whose books she had given him.
Simons was in fact named Huck early on.
Am I to assume Scruff Taurus was your pseudonym in the college paper? Seems too perfect a name.
I wrote the column and all the other articles in the paper, about ten pseudonyms altogether. Scruff Taurus was the son of Norman Mailer by a black girl from the Carolina coast who could sing jazz—he was, thus, the prototypical White Negro of Mailer's fevered fancy. This offspring was perhaps suggested by Mailer's having a white hero not unlike himself in American Dream who was sleeping with a black jazz singer. I was just localizing things a bit, and by having in my mind Mailer as the father I could have the son do some Mailer parody, which I could do. This figure, Taurus, toned down a good deal, was a secure armature to take into Edisto. I had to get Taurus out of the heroic position because he was a cartoon; I replaced him with another cartoon, Simons, but a more cuddly cartoon. The matter of race could be reduced to Simons's boyish speculations, where it would be safe.
Do you feel fiction affords one the opportunity to address race more openly than, perhaps, essays or journalism?
Any address of race is subject to a charge of racism. I suppose fiction affords some sheathing armor, but the bull is coming nonetheless.
This college professor you mention, could she be considered your literary mother? Did she mother you, literarily?
She did. She said, "The prose is strong," she said, "I've had intelligent students before, but not brilliant," and she dropped that Modern Library copy of Absalom, Absalom! in my lap, with her maiden name in the flyleaf. At that moment I had a literary mother and a woman interested in my literariness. It was working. Cf. Faulkner about all writing having to do with getting in someone's pants.
Could Barthelme be considered your literary father? He played a significant role in the shaping of Edisto, yes?
Barthelme edited the book, cutting for cleanliness and strength. In terms of my overall development as a writer, he lamented that he had found me already "fully formed." By this he meant that I was, then, formed by my vision of realistic writing as more or less an amalgam of Faulkner and O'Connor and Williams and Percy and, say, Mailer.
I could not at the time make sense of Barthelme and Beckett and so forth. I never would have had I not, in knowing Don personally, seen that he was a red-blooded normal dude, not a wacko that the writing might suggest. Before I met him in fact I anticipated a Warhol kind of beast. He showed up in jeans and a yoked cowboy shirt a little drunk and introducing himself as Don and shaking hands firmly. We had not had a teacher to that point in our tour in Houston who would deign shake hands.
I referred to Don, as did many of the students, as Uncle Don. He did not shape Edisto beyond cleaning up, with considerable deftness, what I gave him. He could have been a professional editor of the highest caliber. He did in fact select the ten non-consecutive chapters that were sent to the New Yorker. They admitted later that they would not have seen that excerpt had they been given the entire book at first.
I assumed some influence from Don along what we'll call surreal lines only later. Either that or I just naturally got tired or empty of the purely realistic utterance. I've swung so far in this direction now that I'm virtually unpublishable. Don himself at this age was swinging back to realism; he was a man of sense.
So, are your usual outlets not receptive to your surreal work? Would you say a story like "Manifesto" is exemplary of the direction you've swung?
The larger commercial venues do not receive wacky mode. "Manifesto" is about halfway out on the surreal moonshot, I'd say. It's a dialogue between two men who appear to be one man, for the convenience of smooth flux. That is one of the entertaining things about it, to me—a dialogue that is a monologue. I have thinner and weirder action than that, I'm afraid.
What sort of publishing snags have you run into with this kind of work?
Snags? Just, you know, "We pass, we pass, we pass … "
I think it's admirable that you refuse to lasso your creative potential for the simple sake of commercial viability. It seems you just let your writing fly and if that means nobody wants what comes of it, so be it.
Nothing to admire. No sacrifice involved, but rather an enfeeblement that prevents any other kind of writing than that which one does. I used to ask Don why he did not write a blockbuster and cash in, to which he'd say, "Can't." I thought he meant can't violate my pure vision, my self. He meant "can't," as hard as that is to believe, given his range (to wit, his satires). By the way, on the subject of his Southernness, folk should have a look at "The Sea of Hesitation." Only a Southerner at heart knows that much about the Wawer off the top of his head, and can write "Proceed with your evil plan, sumbitch."
IV. "I try to assault what passes for southernness if I can"
Is it true you view writing as a spoiling of paper? Can you expound?
I take this phrase from Barthelme, who was always two-wording the world. We were, he averred, but spoiling paper. Similarly, once when I asked him if he wasn't, after eleven books, satisfied, he said, with a little backhanding of the space near him, as if dismissing something, "Oh, I have my … little things." I was aghast, somewhat. I am not so aghast now, beginning to get it.
By "little things," did Barthelme mean he had only a few things he was satisfied with in his writing? It's a terrifying thought, if so.
He meant that his things were little things. He was equally dissatisfied by all of them. Here's the actual conversation:
[Padgett Powell:] Are you satisfied?
[Donald Barthelme:] Of course I'm not
[Padgett Powell:] You have eleven books—
[Donald Barthelme:] Oh, I have my [batting
them away] little things.
When you say you are beginning to get it, are there only a few things you are satisfied with in your past work? Can you single them out?
No, it is not a discriminatory dissatisfaction; it is a realizing that the work is not large.
Do you have an approach in creating characters?
No approach. Unless one's talent is large, characters are a portion or aspect of oneself, a generally inexcusable facet, which is where the mantel of "fiction" comes in handy.
I've been thinking about this business of Southernness. I know of a West Virginia writer, Ann Pancake, who spoke of a "responsibility" she feels in representing "her people" in her fiction. Do you take similar precautions with characters?
I try to assault what passes for Southernness if I can. This puts me a tad outside the good-old-boy network, I like to think. This thinking might be more hopeful than accurate. Actually, the idea of having a position at all with respect to characters or Southernness or to characters and Southernness strikes me as the wrong thing to do. Having a position at all, of any sort, seems contraindicated. I wish it weren't too late to go to chiropractic school.
Yeah, you're definitely outside the good-old-boy network. Even though I place Aliens of Affection on the same pedestal of short fiction as Airships and Everything That Rises Must Converge, something about you and your work overall does reek of a general outsiderism, as if there is no easy category yet for what you do.
I would never have thought that those two books could be twinned in any way beyond that they are Southern. She was our Hera. Barry Hannah is a full mortal with his ear to the oracle hole in the ground. The ground has a little whiskey moistening it. Barry has to brush this moist dirt from his ear and run home and write down what he's heard. He is very good at that. I think I inhabit a liquid fey interface between "believing" in the South and making fun of folk who believe. But, as I say, I think it even feyer to ponder one's position in all this. I pitch for a softball team of grad students tonight. Feeling primed. We are the Sinkholes, which we like to pronounce in the Spanish way.
This balance between believing and making fun of those who believe, do you think you'd be able to achieve it if you were living and working in, say, Montana, or some other region of the US?
Well, sure, but it takes time to develop the sense of the local game. It might take a lifetime in fact. I have lived in Montana, by the way, long enough to begin to at least appreciate that it is not Civil War ground. It is the ground of our greatest genocide. What bastards we were. Arguably worse bastards than we were on Civil War ground, but very refreshing to be off Civil War ground and free of that particular debate.
V. "It is very hard for us to comprehend what we are"
You're a big fan of buffalo. Can you tell me how you came to buffalo and why you appreciate them so?
Yes. There were sixty million buffalo on the Plains; some conservative estimates are as low as only thirty million. Apparently you could see herds that went beyond the horizon, the ground appearing to ripple as they moved. We got them down to about three hundred head in one notable last herd that was offered to the US government for sale, which declined. Canada bought it. Canada, to where we'd chased the Nez Percé. Today, there is a federal buffalo reserve outside of Missoula that great fanfare is made of; it is only 1800 acres and it has on it from three hundred to five hundred buffalo. I like them because they seem gently wild, as opposed to violently wild, and they have the huge rump-like hump, the giant head, the eyeball the size of a billiard ball. What is not to like? We killed them all.
And of course the Indians today are still in a world of hurt, where we put them, after killing their meat. It is very hard for us to comprehend what we are. The details of our history are so repellent, once you start to get the fine print, that you fall back dazed and fail to retain what you've just read. Chief Joseph alone will appall.
Did you only come to love buffalo when you saw one up close in Montana, or was it just a general admiration that came from reading about them or seeing them on television?
I saw one quarantined for brucellosis here on a prairie in Florida about twenty years ago, a big bull that was apparently going to live out his days alone. He was resting on the ground, upright, like a dog. Then in Montana I saw them close enough to almost touch, in Yellowstone, trotting in the snow. You could hide and they'd come by, close. You want to tousle them.
Have you ever thought of writing a book of naturalism on the buffalo? Something like Rick Bass's The Ninemile Wolves? Do you have any interest in nonfiction?
Nonfiction is exhausting. I agreed recently with an agent to consider doing a book on a Shaolin kung fu priest in New York, and got all bothered up in thinking about camping out in NYC for a year and penetrating the wude in a big-time Capotean/Wolfeish way, and never heard back from the agent. So, no. My little piece on the world-champion armwrestler took two months and more work than two books of fiction. But if I could get up with some whoriginal beeves and talk to Ted Turner, I'm there. I want to have a buffalo you can saddle up and ride. I am afraid of horses but I would not be sore afraid of a buffalo. A man with a buffalo would not need anything else.
Source: Brian J. Barr, "Interview with Padgett Powell," in The Believer, Vol. 4, No. 7, September 2006, pp. 1-15.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Padgett Powell's work.
Padgett Powell burst onto the literary scene in 1984 with his first novel, Edisto. A college chemistry major turned day-laborer and roofer, Powell nurtured his literary aspirations by reading American novelist William Faulkner's works in his spare time and eventually enrolled in the University of Houston's creative writing graduate program. In the words of Time critic R. Z. Sheppard, Edisto, which was adapted from Powell's master's thesis, showed that its author had "all the literary equipment for a new career: a peeled eye, a tuning-fork ear, and an innovative way with local color and regional dialect."
Critics have compared Powell's technique to that of the great U.S. regional writers, including Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, J. D. Salinger, Flannery O'Connor, and Faulkner. Although he has been influenced by the styles of past writers, Powell's mode of expression remains distinctive. Reviewing Edisto for the Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Yardley commented that much of the book is "so fresh and original; Padgett Powell clearly knows what he is doing, and he does it very well." In a piece for the New York Times Book Review, Ron Loewinsohn similarly praised Powell, calling him "an extravagantly talented writer."
Named for the predominantly black, rural, backwater section of undeveloped South Carolina coastline near what the narrator calls the "architect-conceived, Arab-financed" Hilton Head, Edisto is a young man's episodic account of his unusual coming of age. Simons (pronounced "Simmons") Manigault, the book's narrator, is a precocious, prepubescent twelve-year-old trapped in a seemingly incomprehensible world—that of adults. Simons's parents are separated and his college-professor mother, known among the local blacks as "the Duchess," has decided that her only son should be a writer.
Simons is no ordinary child. He is, stated Sheppard in Time, "one of the most engaging fictional small fry ever to cry thief: sly, pungent, lyric, funny, and unlikely to be forgotten." In a review in Newsweek, Peter Prescott pointed to the "great comic effect" the author manages in his treatment of Simons: Powell endows his protagonist with a sophisticated sort of innocence that is at once poignant and amusing.
In return for his pursuit of literary knowledge, Simons's mother gives him free reign to do virtually anything he pleases. Simons frequents the Baby Grand, a predominantly black local bar whose clientele has dubbed the youth something of a folk hero. Simons explains, "I am a celebrity because I'm white, not even teenage yet, and possess the partial aura of the Duchess." The Duchess's aura, however, is informed by her drinking and her promiscuity, both of which figure in her son's development.
It is not until Taurus, the Duchess's mysterious lover and Simons's substitute father, enters the story that the boy, in a sense, becomes a man. Sybil Estess, writing in Southwest Review, dubbed Taurus a "blessed intruder into [the] story," who teaches Simons how to live fully in the present. Taurus inspires in Simons the courage to move on without knowing what might happen in the future. "Something is happening, happening all the time," Simons learns, and a life in Edisto is not what lies ahead for the boy. Taurus's influence allows Simons to willingly accept the changes he is about to encounter. By the end of the novel, Simons's parents reunite and the family moves to the cardboard world of Hilton Head. Taurus, having fulfilled his role as teacher in the story, exits Simons's life as unexpectedly as he had entered it.
Powell's pages are filled with the symbolism, colorful characters, and precise vernacular of past regionalist giants, but the young writer, as pointed out by Jonathan Yardley in his review in Washington Post Book World, has added "a new twist, and a most agreeable one." Avoiding the trap of sentimentality, Powell addresses the highly developed and commercial "new" South of the 1980s, "finds it imperfect—but accepts it anyway." An air of honesty permeates the author's advice to readers living on the brink of the twenty-first century: the "best thing to do," Powell tells us through Simons, "is to get on with it."
Edisto is ironic in its implication that one must learn the ways of the world in spite of one's parents. But more than an examination of a youth's rite of passage, the book, explained Peter Ross, writing in Detroit News, is "a masterwork of invention, and even more of intelligent feeling, of emotion tempered by sound thinking." Robert Towers's evaluation of Edisto echoed Ross's enthusiastic response. Towers wrote in the New York Times Review of Books that he was "charmed by the book's wit and impressed by its originality. Some turn of phrase, some flash of humor, some freshly observed detail, some acutely rendered perception of a child's pain or a child's amazement transfigures nearly every page."
Powell's follow-up to Edisto is the novel titled A Woman Named Drown. Like its predecessor, Powell's second book explores conventional occurrences in unconventional terms. Al, the narrator of A Woman Named Drown, has been called a grown-up version of Edisto's Simons Manigault. Al is working on his Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry when he receives a surprising good-bye letter from his girlfriend of six years. In reaction, he quickly moves in with a woman whom he hardly knows: an aging actress named Mary Constance Baker, whose last role was the lead in a play titled A Woman Named Drown. Mary uses Al as a substitute for her late husband, and after they roam around Florida together for a while, she leaves him in a motel to continue, in Powell's words, his "little downside sabbatical"—alone. Paul Gray of Time suggested that the book's hero "arrives back where he started a mildly wiser fellow." A Woman Named Drown, as T. Coraghessan Boyle noted in the New York Times Book Review, recreates "the distinctive, understated humor that is Mr. Powell's signature. He presents a terrific, hyper-real dialogue in quick, bludgeoned pieces, and his narrator's phrasing and dialect are always surprising and inventive."
In 1996 Powell returned to the character of Simons Manigault in the novel Edisto Revisited. The narrative begins just after Simons has graduated from architectural school. Gripped by a profound malaise, he has no desire to design anything. Then he meets his beautiful cousin Patricia and, according to Tribune Books contributor Alexander Theroux, "wastes no time in laying the foundation for an illicit, passionate affair in good Southern Gothic tradition with this eye-catching relation of his. But this is a novel about chronic drift," added Theroux, "and our wandering protagonist is not about to find salvation in the arms of a woman. Within a month he goes off to Texas…. Drift embraced as lifestyle frees him from the suffocating exigencies of life. Drifting allows Simons to a degree to become attuned to the small poetries of everyday existence, at least so he believes in his self-indulgent, overly romantic belief that work robs you of your soul."
Although Edisto Revisited did not draw the lavish praise that its predecessor had, reviewers still found much to like in the book. Theroux noted: "Powell is blessed with a quirky, thoughtful prose style. There are deftly drawn, image-filled passages…. Powell paints a spare yet vivid portrait of a seedy South in a novel concerned with giving up on the battles of life before they begin…. [Edisto Revisited] is cynical and yet oddly compassionate." Writing in Washington Post Book World, Valerie Sayers described the book as "frustrating and exhilarating, dark and light, willful and mysterious. I wish there were more of it."
Padgett Powell is "a tough writer, remarkably resistant to democratic notions of right and wrong, what's fair and what's unfair," concluded Scott Spencer, a reviewer in New York Times Book Review. "In the intricacies of his brilliant prose, he conceals a stunning stubbornness, a disdain for nostalgia, spirituality, sobriety and, finally, even identity." Spencer went on to call Edisto Revisited "a puzzling work of high style, a rendering of haplessness that seems to poeticize passivity. While his novel may make you wonder if it has much of what is called meaning, Mr. Powell finally overpowers such doubts with his countless quotable passages, his humor and his seductive evocation of the romance of giving up." Also in the New York Times Book Review, A. O. Scott called Edisto and Edisto Revisited "two of the smartest and most affecting recent fictional treatments of young Southern manhood."
Southern manhood is the informing theme of Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men. As the novel commences, the eponymous Mrs. Hollingsworth is sitting down to make a grocery list. What is drawn from her pen, however, is not a list of vegetables but rather a series of reflections on men, quickly evolving into fictions peopled by Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, a shady businessman named Roopit Mogul, and two bumbling criminals, Oswald and Bundy. Mrs. Hollingsworth also details her take on the world, her prejudices, and her dissatisfaction with the mundane pursuits of her "Tupperware" daughters and inattentive husband. In his New York Times Book Review piece on the novel, Robert Kelly wrote that Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men "is a slim, sly deceiver of a book, full of mirth and wickedness … At the core of the novel, something rings true: a woman thinks her thoughts. And they create a tumultuous narrative, full of the rancorous prejudices involved in responding to the world around you."
A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men an "evocative daydream of a novel," adding: "This challenging but highly inventive narrative is just quirky enough to hit plenty of literary funnybones." Booklist correspondent Neal Wyatt found the vignettes "loosely connected, sometimes incoherent, but beautifully written and oddly appealing." And Kelly deemed the work "indeed a spare book, slender yet full of excitements and dubious desires."
Critics suggest that part of Powell's appeal as a writer lies in his honest treatment of universal themes. His rare ability to attach an intangible moment of insight to a single, concrete experience adds intimacy and credence to his words. A. O. Scott observed that the author is noted for "his devotion to characters who reject the bland conformity of contemporary life: to spirited eccentrics and losers of all kinds. This affection may be a legacy of the South's defeat in the Civil War, or it may have a more general, more strictly contemporary relevance."
In "Hitting Back," an essay Powell published in A World Unsuspected, a collection of childhood memoirs edited by Alex Harris, the author remembers an incident that sparked a transformation in the way he looked at the world: disapproving little Don, a so-called "friend," put dog excrement on the author's Sunday best. As Powell puts it, "I recall this as my very first instance of moral outrage." In the same essay, Powell mourns the tainting of his southern junior high school innocence by the mindset of ignorant whites in positions of power. He and his friend were punished for breaking their school's segregated sex rule on the bus, considered an indirect but effective way of keeping black boys away from white girls. Powell recollects with a sense of loss the naivete that inspired his befuddlement when asked if he knew why this rule existed. "That was precisely it," he recalls. "We couldn't begin to know."
In a phone interview with Andrea Stevens in New York Times Book Review, Powell reflected: "I couldn't fit in ten years ago. I couldn't fit in twenty years ago. My interest remains with those who fail deliberately and those who can't help it." The author also once explained to CA: "Bad luck at fishing and worse with women made me what little writer I am. Had things turned out a bit differently, I'd be Doug Flutie. Reading William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! did it."
Source: Thomson Gale, "Padgett Powell," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay, Vice gives a critical analysis of Padgett Powell's work.
Padgett Powell is one of the most linguistically inventive American authors and one of the fiction writers of the contemporary South who follows the tracks laid by William Faulkner, the man Flannery O'Connor once described as the "big train." "The first thing I ever wrote was bad Faulkner," admits Powell in his contributor's note in a 1997 issue of The Oxford American magazine, which featured his autobiographical essay "On Coming Late to Faulkner". In the article Powell addresses his former self, the unpublished neophyte, in relation to Faulkner: "[You] with your two-cylinder syntax are a mule and cart being borne down by the Dixie Limited. Fond mocking is, actually, all that you can do, given the roar of the train that blasts you from the track." One might say the same of the mature and successful Powell, whose "fond mocking" is not always easy to digest, with his goofy, white-trash sensibility mixed with an ornate, almost Latinate syntax. Since finding Faulkner, Powell has, in his own words, "made" six books of fiction: four novels, Edisto (1984), A Woman Named Drown (1987), Edisto Revisited (1996), and Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men (2000); and two collections of short stories, Typical (1991) and Aliens of Affection (1998). Typical comprises twenty-two short stories, most of them thematically connected vignettes scattered among a few longer, more traditional short stories. Aliens of Affection comprises two novellas, "Wayne" and "All Along the Watchtower", and five full-length short stories. Powell is also a prolific nonfiction essayist; his articles and book reviews have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times Book Review and Esquire.
Powell was born in Gainesville, Florida, on 25 April 1952. His father, Albine Batts Powell, was a brewmaster, and his mother, Bettyre Palmer Powell, taught school. The family relocated to South Carolina when Powell was a young boy. His first love was not literature but science, and in 1975 he graduated from the College of Charleston, in Charleston, South Carolina, with a B.A. in chemistry. His scientific training may be responsible for the precision of his prose. Soon after graduation Powell became a graduate student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to work toward a master's degree in chemistry, but he soon found himself spending more time reading than studying chemistry. Having lost interest in school, he spent a few years drifting around the Southeast and working as a freight handler, household mover, and orthodontic technician.
Powell worked for almost six years as a roofer in Texas, writing in his spare time, before he eventually entered the prestigious M.F.A. program at the University of Houston, where he studied with the legendary fiction writer Donald Barthelme. In an interview Powell described his former teacher as a kind, caring man who took Powell under his wing because he saw something of himself in his student's determination. Powell recalls that "We had similar tastes. We liked the same things, the same bars, the same books, the same women. The only thing we differed on was music. I only like rock and roll. He always wanted to talk about jazz. He really wasn't so much a writer as a jazz painter on the page." Powell received his master's degree in 1982. During his time in Houston, Powell met his future wife, the poet Sidney Wade, whom he married on 22 May 1984. Both Powell and Wade are now professors at the University of Florida in Powell's hometown of Gainesville. They have two daughters, Amanda Dahl and Elena, both born in the same hospital as their father and grandfather.
Powell burst onto the literary scene with the publication in 1984 of Edisto, a book Walker Percy praised as "a truly remarkable first novel, both as a narrative and in its extraordinary use of language. It reminds one of Catcher in the Rye, but it's better—sharper, funnier, more poignant." Named for a largely undeveloped strip of South Carolina coast, "too small for the Arabs to bother to take," Edisto is narrated by a precocious twelve-year-old boy, Simons Manigault. Simons's mother, separated from his father and called "the Duchess" by Edisto's native black population because of her status as a displaced member of the local gentry, desperately wants her son to grow up to be a writer. Because of the Duchess's lofty aspirations for him, Simons's narration is one of the most unusual voices in recent literary history. Similar to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Simons is a wild creature, fond of skipping school, fishing, and hanging out at the Baby Grand, a local juke joint where the patrons, largely black, slip him beer. For the most part, he is as completely "unsivilized" as Twain's protagonist describes himself to be, except for the heavy doses of Greek and Latin classics Simons's mother force-feeds him daily. As long as Simons continues his literary pursuits, the Duchess turns a blind eye to his truant behavior and allows him to do as he pleases. Simons's mixture of puerile freedom and erudition leads to a literary style that is both philosophically penetrating and winsomely charming.
By the end of the novel Simons's parents have reconciled and his family moves to the plastic world of Hilton Head, South Carolina, a resort island full of condominiums, golf courses, and, worst of all, prep schools. Forced to leave the wildness of his former existence behind, Simons finds himself in a hollow new world where he no longer feels like an individual. Edisto is a bildungsroman, not only of one boy, but of a whole way of life in the South. As the sleepy agrarian past disappears in favor of a new commercial landscape, there is no room for sentimentality or regret. "It's the modern world. I have to accept it," Simons declares in the final chapter of the novel. "I'm a pioneer."
In 1984 Edisto was nominated for a National Book Award and was selected for inclusion in Time magazine's list of the year's best fiction, along with works by Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Milan Kundera. These honors helped Powell to return to his hometown of Gainesville as a professor of creative writing. He proved to be a dynamic teacher both in and out of class. Not only did Powell show his students how to construct well-made stories, but he would also throw wild parties where the former chemist would instruct his students on how to make homemade bombs out of bottles of Aqua Velva and balloons filled with hydrogen. In 1986, shortly before the publication of his second novel, A Woman Named Drown, Powell received the Whiting Foundation Writers' Award.
Like Powell's first novel, A Woman Named Drown fared well with critics, using the same combination of ordinary circumstances mixed with extraordinary prose. The protagonist, Al, is a Ph.D. student of inorganic chemistry who, like Simons in Edisto, is desperate to avoid responsibility. Al studies chemistry not because he is a "true scientist" like his friend Tom, another student in the same doctoral program, but a "scientist by default." Al sees science as a dodge, an excuse to keep from taking over his millionaire father's pipe business. As the novel opens, Al receives a Dear John letter from his longtime girlfriend, who has left him for a "famous crystallographer." Depressed, he drops out of the doctoral program and, on the rebound, moves in with an older woman he hardly knows, a down-and-out actress named Mary Constance Baker whose last role was in a play titled A Woman Named Drown. After the tumultuous affair ends, Al decides to visit Tom in Alabama, where he has taken a new job. Al finds that his friend has become disappointingly middle-class. Since Tom has abandoned "true" science for money, Al gives in as well and returns to school to complete his degree, knowing that the upcoming year will be his last before he is forced to become the custodian of his father's pipe empire.
In a review of A Woman Named Drown published in the 7 June 1987 issue of The New York Times Book Review, T. Coraghessan Boyle writes that "All of these adventures are enlivened by the distinctive, understated humor that is Mr. Powell's signature. He presents a terrific, hyper- real dialogue in quick bludgeoned pieces, and his narrator's phrasing and dialect are always surprising and inventive."
In an interview published with Boyle's review of A Woman Named Drown, Powell discussed his work thus far and his plans for the future with journalist Alex Ward. "I don't want to be thought of as a six-bout fighter," said Powell, who, like his character Al, is fond of boxing metaphors. "I'd rather be considered for what I do over the long haul." Being valued for the long haul means showing a certain amount of variance and growth. According to Powell, Edisto is based on a real person, while A Woman Named Drown is "pure fiction." His second novel began as a dream he had while enrolled in a writing workshop taught by Barthelme at the University of Houston. The dream was so vivid that Powell wrote it down quickly and read it to the class. "They thought it was horrible," he recalled, "But you always feel embarrassed with a story at first." Powell added, "the story goes through a gestation period in your mind and you know you have to write it. So you do, and then you really embarrass yourself." This insight into the writing process referred not only to his previous work but also to a new book he was in the middle of writing, tentatively titled "Mr. Irony." At the time of the interview, Powell described the book as being about two women from Texas who take an incredibly cheap world tour with two gentlemen, one of whom is the title character. "I'm not sure what I've got here," he said about the manuscript, "except that it's supposed to be humorous, and it needs work."
"Mr. Irony" underwent significant revision over the next three years. Some of this time Powell spent traveling. In 1989 he was a Fulbright fellow in Turkey. Upon his return "Mr. Irony" was published, not as a novel but as a densely packed short story, in The Paris Review. It was a landmark story for Powell's career, for it marked a complete departure from his previously realistic fiction and served as a sort of ars poetica. "Mr. Irony" is a dazzling piece of metafiction.
Even in Powell's first two novels, one can easily see that he was attempting to adopt the humor and linguistic playfulness that Barthelme engineered in short-story collections such as Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964) and novels such as The Dead Father (1975). But neither Edisto nor A Woman Named Drown pushed the boundaries of fiction as much as Powell's next work, the 1991 short-story collection Typical, in which "Mr. Irony" was republished. With this book he proved that he was approaching the kind of postmodern assault on form that had made his mentor famous.
The arch-absurdist Barthelme is thinly disguised as the title character in "Mr. Irony", the longest story and the centerpiece of the collection. Powell himself appears in the story as Mr. Irony's "student of low-affected living edged with self-deprecating irony." Teacher and student embark on the "Man-at-His-Best World Tour," via "unspecified variable means of transport," with two Texas women found at the International Hostelry for Available Traveling Women. The two couples dive from the cliffs in Acapulco, ride elephants in Lanxang (Laos) and join a Rocky Mountain goat safari. Toward the end of the tour, Mr. Irony's student narrator decides to withdraw himself from the narrative in hopes of making the story better: "I had in fact picked up my self-deprecating ironic ways from Mr. Irony, whose student I allegedly was…. I could serve the tale best, I thought, and finally not without considerable self-deprecation and irony, by removing myself from it, and deciding thereupon to do so, and hereby pronounce myself expunged from this affair as teller—." The narration is saved by Mr. Irony himself, who assures his student that he should not make himself "scarce" because he has the ability and talent to finish the tale. Powell's statement concerning the nature of art is clear. Irony, self-doubt, and self-deprecation are tools the writer must use to prevent his ego from getting ahead of the work, but these should never be used as an excuse for quitting. "Things need you, son," Mr. Irony tells his protégé near the end of the story.
Typical begins with an epigraph from Barthelme asserting that the virtue of desire is greater than the virtue of honesty: "Truth is greatly overrated, volition where it exists must be protected, wanting itself can be obliterated, some people have forgotten how to want." Of the characters that populate the stories of Typical, some are more honest than others, but all somehow deal with a reduced capacity to want; most of them have become emotionally paralyzed by their dreary, everyday lives. The metafictional "Mr. Irony" spawned a series of "Mister" stories that are featured in Typical, including "Mr. Nefarious", "Miss Resignation", "Dr. Ordinary", "General Rancidity", and "Mr. Irony Renounces Irony". They are mostly amusing, lyrical vignettes, one- or two-page portraits of characters whose personalities seem to be wholly dependent on the habits or emotional states indicated by their names. Many of these stories seem as if they could have been written by Barthelme himself. Like his mentor, Powell appears to prefer short fiction that explores the limits of language rather than stories that rehash tired plots and draw their power from a simple conflict. In this way the series of "Mister" stories that occupy much of Typical are anything but typical.
In other stories from the collection, such as "The Winnowing of Mrs. Schuping" and "Letter from a Dogfighter's Aunt, Deceased", Powell melds his postmodern training with his Southern gothic upbringing to forge a style that is completely his own. Reminiscent of Carson McCullers's work, "The Winnowing of Mrs. Schuping" is a portrait of a feisty spinster who has decided to simplify her life by divesting herself of responsibilities and possessions. The occupation of winnowing away her life requires a new name, and she arbitrarily renames herself Mrs. Schuping. Unlike Mr. Irony, who loves to travel and wax philosophical about the nature of narrative, Mrs. Schuping gives up travel and reading altogether. She has come to distrust reality completely, and this distrust immobilizes her. She is content to preside serenely over the deterioration of her house, until her winnowing plans are interrupted by a local sheriff, a fat, amorous man who, "in the river of life's winnowing," acts as a "big boulder in the bed of the dwindling stream."
"Letter from a Dogfighter's Aunt, Deceased" is a ghost story told from the perspective of the ghost, an unusual narrative point of view that is both first person and omniscient. This meditative perspective comes from one long dead, but not too long. Aunt Humpy, formerly a stuck-up librarian maniacally intent on correcting her family's grammar, now lovingly watches over Brody, a nephew she helped run away from home so that he could become a breeder of fighting dogs. From her vantage point in Heaven she looks kindly on her fierce nephew, who is now a nonchurchgoer and career criminal. Brody lives on the margins of society, a rogue white male determined to be free of middle-class mores. Aunt Humpy is proud of her nephew because she is now free of the "myriad prejudices and passions and myopias that made us the human being we mortally became." She appreciates the purity of Brody's lawless existence in the same way that he appreciates the purity of the thoroughbred dogs he conditions "to a point suggesting piano wires and marble, reduced by another sculpted cat to a soft red lump resembling bloody terry cloth." In a sense Aunt Humpy is an apologist for the Southerners about whom Powell writes best: tough, mean, yet often sweet boys and men such as Simons and Al, whose self-determined sense of right and wrong often comes into conflict with those in the mainstream.
In the title story, "Typical", Powell proves that he has not lost his ear for the way white, blue-collar Southern males talk and carry themselves. "Typical" is a loosely structured interior monologue filtered through the consciousness of an unemployed steel-mill worker, John Payne. Payne's observations concerning the nature of money, sex, marriage, and race are both comic and narrow-minded, yet his insights into his own limitations and shortcomings are nothing short of remarkable: "I'm not nice, not too smart, don't see too much point in pretending to be either. Why I am telling anyone this trash is a good question…. There are many mysteries in this world. I should be a better person, I know I should, but I don't see that finally being up to choice. If it were, I would not stop at being a better person. Who would?" Payne is a "typical" white male, frustrated by his lot in life. Depressed by his inability to control his life, Payne has lost the desire to do anything but drink. As Barthelme warned in the epigraph to the book, Payne has "forgotten how to want." Now he is merely another victim of social and economic forces beyond his control, and rather than continue to combat these indiscriminately, he has given in to a sort of blue-collar fatalism.
"Typical" was selected for inclusion in the 1990 edition of The Best American Short Stories and also won a Pushcart Prize that year. Several other pieces from Typical were selected for inclusion in other prize-winning anthologies. "Letter from a Dogfighter's Aunt, Deceased" was selected for inclusion in the anthology The Literary Ghost: Great Contemporary Ghost Stories (1991) under the title "Voice from the Grave". "The Winnowing of Mrs. Schuping" was anthologized in the 1992 edition of New Stories From the South and was later selected by novelist Anne Tyler for inclusion in Best of the South: From Ten Years of New Stories from the South (1996).
In 1996 Powell returned to the novel genre as well as to his most popular character, Simons Manigault, with Edisto Revisited. The narrative begins just after Simons has graduated from architecture school. No longer is he a wild creature of the Carolina coast. His education has caused him, like many of the characters in Typical, to give up hope. Profoundly depressed, Simons finds that he has no desire to do anything but consume alcohol. He is momentarily saved by a passionate love affair with his cousin Patricia. The novel wastes little time in laying the foundations of an incestuous romance in the Faulknerian tradition. But even this relationship becomes too much responsibility for Simons to handle, and eventually he flees back to Edisto to find his old friends. Although Edisto Revisited did not draw the lavish praise that Edisto did, reviewers still found much to like in the book, calling it a tour de force of style. Near the end of Edisto Revisited Simons, determined to grow up, renounces the self-defeating indulgences of alcohol, just as Powell himself decided around this time to stop drinking.
There is always a hint in Powell's writing that his fiction is really just autobiography cast into a multitude of masks and personae. Powell has indicated in interviews that Simons is based on a "real person," while the chemistry-student protagonist of A Woman Named Drown pursues Powell's abandoned study of science. "Typical" and "Mr. Irony" reflect two different aspects of Powell's personality. The unemployed Payne is a realistic character reminiscent of the kind of men that Powell would have worked with closely as a day laborer in Texas, while "Mr. Irony" depicts Powell's relationship with his teacher Barthelme and employs the artful fictional techniques that Barthelme practiced.
The fictive positions in "Typical" and "Mr. Irony" seem to be mixed in "Wayne's Fate", another of the stories in Typical. Wayne is a half-intoxicated roofer who loses his balance atop a high building and is decapitated during the fall. His severed head lands in a five-gallon bucket of mastic. The story concludes with the reattachment of his head and the semiresurrection of his corpse. At the end the reader discovers that Wayne is not fully functional but is capable of making lewd comments. He convinces the narrator of the story, a fellow roofer, to make a few lewd comments to the owner of the home they are repairing while they await the paramedics.
Several other Wayne stories were published in Powell's 1998 short-story collection, Aliens of Affection. These stories display a further renovation of Powell's style and an intensification of his linguistic playfulness. He uses extravagant language as a tool to create further ironic space between author and characters as well as between characters and readers. Unlike Powell's previous writings, in which he seemed rather intimate with his characters, in the aptly titled Aliens of Affection he holds his characters at arm's length. Not only are they emotionally alienated from the reader, they are alienated from themselves. Few characters in these stories speak with the clarity or coherence of Payne in "Typical". Most of them are psychotic, drug-addled, and even brain-damaged. In essence, Powell has abandoned realism for a fictional world filtered through a myriad of unusual psychological states.
In the other Wayne stories in Aliens of Affection Wayne has not prospered since his decapitation in Typical. He is now out of work, and his teeth are falling out. His wife, Felicia (Wayne refers to her simply as "Ugly"), kicks him out of their home for being selfish. As it turns out in the course of the Wayne stories, he is a harmless, irresponsible drunk who drifts from one episode to the next, pointlessly rotating among women, bars, and menial jobs. The last section of "Wayne" is told by an intrusive narrator who explains that Wayne's lack of psychological depth is worthy of study: "Wayne isn't afraid of anything because he knows he is afraid. I, by contrast, think myself fearless, and when something scares me, it scares the shit out of me." These moments of fear force the narrator to "undergo a little private analysis the likes of which have never troubled Wayne." Wayne's cowardice, meanness, low intelligence, and lack of motivating psychology are actually assets. The narrator editorializes the ending of the sequence by again comparing Wayne to himself, lamenting, "For all my teeth! Muscles! College!" The narrator is plagued by a sense of self-doubt that never hinders Wayne: "Wayne may be roofing, but I am afraid."
A trilogy of stories in Aliens of Affection appears under the title "All Along the Watchtower". The stories feature a nameless pseudohero resembling Wayne-perhaps the same protagonist in all three stories, perhaps not-who negotiates the indistinct boundaries of personality. In "Chihuahua" the narrator, a former mental patient, sets off on an arbitrary quest to locate a fifty-pound Chihuahua. This takes him south of the border to Mexico, where he finds not only the freakish dog but also a local nurse who supplies the narrator with pills, sex, and the illusion that life can be simple and even pastoral. The narrator of "Stroke" also seems to have diminished mental capacity. The narrative unfolds with all the unimpeded honesty of a stroke victim who cannot edit his thoughts. In the forty-page title story, "Aliens of Affection", the last in the trilogy, the narrator inhabits yet another haze of delusion in which metaphors become literal and the actual world is lost in a fog of language. But readers are still sure they are in the South, or at least the literary South, because of the presence of a devil-may-care Southern belle, Dale Mae.
The departure from traditional narrative and plot in Typical is extended to a radical reinvention of the concept of characters in Aliens of Affection. Many readers might accuse Powell's later characters of flatness, but what they lack in depth they make up for in originality. Because several of the characters in Aliens of Affection are mentally deficient and are incapable of articulating the futility of their own lives as perceptively as Payne in "Typical", or as eloquently as Simons in Edisto and Edisto Revisited and Al in A Woman Named Drown, they are more content to let the absurdity of the world they live in speak for itself. When commentary is needed, the author must make it directly himself, as he does at the end of the Wayne stories.
Another of Powell's schizoid characters, Rod, takes on the persona of Scarliotti in "Scarliotti and the Sinkhole", also from Aliens of Affection. Rod is a trailer-park resident who has been struck in the head by the side mirror of a moving truck. Because he refuses to take his medication, he develops a split personality disorder and creates a new persona to act out his more heroic side. Rod names this more heroic and dangerous alter ego Scarliotti. As Scarliotti, Rod manages to seduce a gas station attendant who really only sleeps with him in order to drink his beer and take his medication. The story ends with a sinkhole threatening to swallow up Rod's trailer. It is difficult to determine whether this sinkhole is a literal danger or an absurdist metaphor for Rod's increasingly dismal existence. He cannot combat the sinkhole as Scarliotti, nor even escape from it as Rod. The story ends with a babbling monologue that shifts between a meditation on dogfighting and an analysis of the Confederate general J. E. B. Stuart.
It is difficult to decide whether Powell's Southern absurdism is a tool for social commentary or simply a tool to poke fun at his characters. To some extent, the radical assault on character in the stories of Aliens of Affection seems to be another attempt to comment upon the changing nature of the South, which is described as a "vale of dry tears" in the story "Trick or Treat". In contrast to colorful, realistic characters such as Simons and Al, who follow in a long line of disaffected Southerners mourning the loss of the old, aristocratic South, Powell's more recent characters are simply incapable of fitting in. They are victims of insanity, stroke, and brain damage, failing to adjust to contemporary life but still clinging to fragmented memories of the old South, to such things as dogfights and Civil War heroes. In an essay titled "Whupped Before Kilt", originally appearing in a 1998 issue of The Oxford American magazine and later republished as the preface to the 1998 edition of New Stories From the South, Powell points out that since the South lost the Civil War, Southern literature has been a literature focused on failure. Quoting Faulkner's Wash Jones in Absalom, Absalom! (1936)-" Well, Kernel, they mought have kilt us, but they ain't whipped us yit, air they?"-Powell asserts that the "literature of the South is full of people running around admitting or denying their whippedness." In contrast to the state of "whippedness," he sees integrity to be "the denial of whippedness." The various figures that populate Powell's later short stories display the unusual characteristic of being "whupped," but because they do not know they are whipped they retain a certain amount of integrity. The reader knows that characters such as Wayne and Rod are victims of circumstance. As victims they will inevitably be bested in their personal dogfights with the world at large. Wayne and Rod, however, do not know that they are underdogs. Their ignorance to their plight causes them to be fearless, and in this fearlessness readers may find a small but deep reservoir of integrity. As with Typical, the stories in Aliens of Affection brought Powell awards for the power and insight of his writing. "Aliens of Affection", the final story in the trilogy "All Along the Watchtower", was selected for the 1998 edition of New Stories from the South. That same year, "Wayne in Love" was selected by Garrison Keillor for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories.
Throughout his career, Powell has attempted to reinvent the literature of the old South by paying particular attention to the aspects of the Southern literary tradition that make it unique, primarily the language of the region. From Edisto to Aliens of Affection, Powell's adept use of inventive syntax, coupled with his finely tuned ear for dialect, has drawn favorable comparisons with such masters of regionalism as Twain and Faulkner. Powell is not, however, a writer lost in the past; his subject matter is that of the contemporary South, a new urban landscape that threatens to erase the identity of the old South as the region gives in to commercial forces from beyond its borders. The traditional theme of defeated Southerner is consistent throughout Powell's body of work. The author's nonconformist "whupped" characters, from Simons to Wayne, are used to critique a culture that has given itself over to the vapid worship of success.
As a writer of short fiction, Powell is one of the few writers who have successfully managed to combine postmodern absurdism with the gothic and grotesque traditions of Southern regionalism. In this sense, his short stories appear to be the direct heir to the work of Barthelme and O'Connor. Like his teacher Barthelme, Powell frequently abandons traditional narrative for fictions that seem to exist in a pure realm of language. Much of his work is unencumbered by realistic plots, and even in his more straightforward stories the settings and characters can only be described as odd or idiosyncratic. Like O'Connor, Powell endeavors to create memorable misfits, his most notable creations being the meditative Mrs. Schuping and the crazed roofer Wayne. Many of Powell's characters seem to be allegorical in nature, with personalities invented to question conventional notions of individuality or even philosophical notions of free will; others are just plain funny.
Source: Brad Vice, "Padgett Powell," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 234, American Short-Story Writers Since World War II, Third Series, edited by Patrick Meanor and Richard E. Lee, The Gale Group, 2001, pp. 250-56.
Boyle, T. Coraghessan, "A Better Class of Fools," in New York Times Book Review, June 7, 1987, p. 9.
Brunazzi, Elizabeth, "Southern Stories Map Social Boundaries and Emotional Territory," in San Francisco Chronicle, May 31, 1998, p. RV-9, http://sfgate.com/cgibin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1998/05/31/RV3439.DTL (accessed October 30, 2006).
Geeslin, Campbell, Review of A Woman Named Drown, in People Weekly, Vol. 27, June 15, 1987, p. 14.
Hempel, Amy, "‘A Lesson in Hard-Boil,’" in New York Times, July 21, 1991, p. 6.
Hwang, Francis, Review of Aliens of Affection, in City Pages, Vol. 19, No. 897, February 11, 1998, http://www.citypages.com/databank/19/897/article4339.asp (accessed October 30, 2006).
Kakutani, Michiko, "A Potpourri of Characters and Their Stories," in New York Times, August 16, 1991, p. C21. Kanfer, Stefan, Review of Typical, in Time, Vol. 137, No. 26, July 1, 1991, p. 71.
Kelly, Robert, "The New Southern Male," in New York Times Book Review, November 5, 2000, p. 28.
Loewinsohn, Ron, "Age 12 and Burning with Questions," in New York Times, April 15, 1984, p. 14.
Powell, Padgett, "Trick or Treat," in Prize Stories 1995: The O. Henry Awards, edited by William Abrahams, Doubleday, 1995, pp. 52-63.
Review of Aliens of Affection, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 244, No. 40, September 29, 1997, p. 62.
Scott, A. O., "Southern Comfort," in New York Times Book Review, February 1, 1998, p. 27.
Spencer, Scott, "Carolina Slacker," in New York Times Book Review, March 31, 1996, p. 14.
Ayers, Edward L., and Bradley C. Mittendorf, eds., The Oxford Book of the American South: Testimony, Memory, and Fiction, Oxford University Press, 1998.
This book is a collection of essays, memoirs, diaries, and letters covering the colonial period up through the twentieth century. The editors have attempted unity in their book rather than a mere catalogue of texts, bringing together history, philosophy, and social issues to illustrate a subculture alive within its own historical context.
Cocca, Carolyn E., Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States, State University of New York Press, 2004.
Cocca's book is the first to look in-depth at the history and application of U.S. legislation enacted to protect and punish adolescents who are having sex. The author uses case studies as well as statistics in her examination of statutory rape laws.
Martin, Robert K., and Eric Savoy, eds. American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, University of Iowa Press, 1998.
This collection of essays celebrates the revival and reinvention of Gothic literature in North America with focus on theory, history, psychoanalysis, racial politics, and women's writing.
Nabokov, Vladimir, Lolita, Vintage Books, 1989.
First published in 1955, this famous, controversial novel is about a man who lusts after a twelve-year-old girl whom he calls Lolita. Mrs. Hollingsworth refers to Jimmy as "Lolito."
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