“Cries for Help, Various”
Author: Padgett Powell
Price: $ 16.95 (Paperback)
In a recent reading in Nashville, Padgett Powell introduced his stories by claiming that they were the beginnings of novels that had petered out and that the volume should have been called “Cries for Help, Failures,” but his publisher didn’t think labelling them as failed novels would help sales.
While a couple of the 38 stories might have had novelistic possibilities, most of these short -shorts, fragments, vignettes, experiments, are clearly just that, provocative little pieces that make their effect, then quit.
In technique, they are the farthest yet from his first book, the charming Southern-narrative conventional novel “Edisto” which was runner-up for the 1984 National Book Award.
Powell has written five novels since, and three volumes of stories, and moved farther and farther from storytelling, what he calls “cuddly realism.”
He insists he is treating the reader like a grown-up, not trying to beguile him and not necessarily asking for a suspension of disbelief. He is after a “wow!” moment, not immersion.
Predictably, this is not the road to big sales, but innovation, hugely admired by fellow writers and critics and judges, has won him The Rome Fellowship in Literature, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Whiting Award.
His novel “You and I,” for example, is all dialogue, two old men sitting, probably on a porch, talking. The novel “Interrogative Mood” is composed entirely of questions.
Following up perhaps on “Interrogative Mood” is the story “The Imperative Mood,” all commands: “Put that nice blue and white pitcher on the marble washstand. Determine your sock size. Play favorites. Have some.” Another story, “The Indicative Mood,” begins: “I have read that half the bees are missing. There is a woman on French TV with glossy pink cream on her lips.”
One of my favorites and a story that might have been developed into a novel is “Joplin and Dickens.” Janis Joplin, age nine, has as a classmate in her Texas elementary school: Charles Dickens. When the teacher, Ms. Turner, asks Charles to describe the weather he replies: “Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth.” Befuddled, Ms. Turner asks him to put it in other words. “‘No ma’am I can’t,’ he replies.”
Janis Joplin gets it. “She’d like to mount Charlie Dickens, in the cloak closet if she has to.”
There are three stories featuring Boris Yeltsin. In “Yeltsin Dancing” we learn when Boris left power he took the red nuclear suitcase with him, leaving behind a fake. Putin and others think they have the real thing but Yeltsin is using it as a chick magnet, better he says than a BMW, picking up beautiful girls in Moscow nightclubs, dancing the night away, not he says because of the cardiovascular benefits, but for the “simple and uplifting joy, the heart’s first and final food.”
Several of the stories have hapless, nearly pathetic narrators. “Spy” begins: “My daughter has become a spy. One prepares for surprises, but still. I had braced most against tattoo and mutilation, particularly the multiple perforation of the ear giving it the aspect of a python’s lip and metal deep on the tongue also is very high on the low list of things I wanted to see, so her working for the CIA, if that’s who it is, has thrown me.”
In a story called “Confidence” the narrator says: “One of the benefits of living alone is unguarded farting. Another is no one watching when you sleep, and when you don’t. And you may pursue whatever is mindless until you yourself are tired of it.”
Another narrator muses in “Utopia,” “I wonder why everyone has to be on the phone all the time. Everyone has suddenly decided they have to know what everyone else is up to every minute of the day. How did this happen? We have all become The President.”
Many of the stories are only one paragraph long, and not all of them work, but the ones that do: WOW.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”