Blog about some recent reading

From the bottom of the stack to the top:

I read most of Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut Edisto in a few sittings, settling down easily into its rich evocation of a strange childhood in the changing Southern Sea Islands. I’d always been ambivalent about Powell, struggling and failing to finish some of his later novels (Mrs. Hollingsworth’s MenThe Interrogative Mood), but Edisto captured me from its opening lines. The story takes two simple tacks–it’s a coming of age tale as well as a stranger-comes-to-town riff. Powell’s sentences are lively and invigorating; they show refinement without the wearing-down of being overworked. The book is fresh, vital.

So when I finished Edisto, I thought I’d go for some more early Padgett. On Friday I picked up his second novel, A Woman Named Drown, started it that afternoon, and put it down 70 pages later the following afternoon. There wasn’t a single sentence that made me want to read the next sentence. Worse, it was turning into an ugly slog, a kind of attempt to refine Harry Crews’s dirty south into something closer to grimy eloquence. I like gross stuff, but this wasn’t my particular flavor.

In between, I took another palate cleansing essay from Brian Dillon’s collection Suppose a Sentence. Dillon’s collection of essays is perfect for resetting a reader’s mood between texts. Each essay reflects, sometimes obliquely, sometimes more directly on a single sentence from a range of authors. Good stuff.

I am working on a full review of William Melvin Kelley’s cult classic Dunfords Travels Everywheres. I have misused the phrase “cult classic” in the preceding sentence Dunfords has been long out of print, almost impossible to find, and largely unheralded for the past few decades. However, new editions from Anchor are rectifying this problem. The book is weird, a bit shaggy, funny and perplexing. More thoughts to come.

When I put down Powell’s A Woman Named Drown I picked up Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeps. I bought Orange back in July, pulling it out based on its spine (Two Dollar Radio, a small press I admire) and its title (c’mon!). The Steve Erickson blurb sealed the deal. I’m really digging Orange right now. It’s a novel about Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies (the narrators term) bumming around and sucking blood and drugs in the Pacific Northwest. It reminds me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s film Near Dark, Tim Hunter’s film River’s Edge, and Harmony Korine’s film Gummo. There’s also a healthy dose of Twin Peaks in here, as well as the abject contours of Charles Burns’s Black Hole.

I’ve also been using Pierre Senges’s Studies of Silhouettes (English translation by Jacob Siefring) as literary palate cleansers, opening the book at random to read Senges’s strange riffs on Kafka’s leads. As Siefring’s blurb puts it, “Each of the texts in this work proceed from the fragments and cryptic beginnings found scattered throughout the notebooks Max Brod took possession of after Kafka’s death.” The results are sometimes very funny, sometimes profound, sometimes both. I hope to have a fuller review down the line.

Could Barthelme be considered your literary father?

BLVR: Could Barthelme be considered your literary father? He played a significant role in the shaping of Edisto, yes?

Padgett Powell: 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.

From a 2006 Believer interview with Padgett Powell.

Three Books (Books acquired, 16 Oct. 2020–John Barth, Walker Percy, and Padgett Powell)

Chimera by John Barth. First edition 1973 hardback from Random House. Jacket design by George Giusti.

I couldn’t pass up this pristine first edition Barth today when browsing the used bookstore with my kids. I first read Chimera twenty or more years ago, as an undergrad, and it broke my brain a bit.

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy. Second printing 1972 trade paperback from Noonday. Cover design by Janet Halverson.

Earlier this year in the same used bookshop I came across a first edition hardback copy of Percy’s 1971 novel Love in the Ruins. I hadn’t read Percy at the time (I’ve since loved his later novel Lancelot and been kinda sorta iffy on his famous debut The Moviegoer), but Janet Halverson’s oh-so-seventies Schoolhouse Rock!ish cover grabbed my attention. I really wish I’d bought it now (I think it was six bucks). Two weeks ago I came across two more Percys (Percies?) with Halverson covers, but let them be. But not today—at least not for this copy of The Last Gentleman.

A Woman Named Drown by Padgett Powell. First edition 1987 hardback from FS&G.. Jacket design by Cynthia Krupat, using a photograph by William Wegman.

On the aforementioned-fortnight-last trip to the bookstore, I picked up, somewhat at random, Padgett Powell’s first novel Edisto. I finished it in three days, enjoying it very much, so I couldn’t pass up this copy of his slim second novel today.

Blog about book browsing on a Friday afternoon (and mostly looking at covers)

I’ve made a habit of prowling around my own shelves each week, trying to build a small stack of books I can part with. I then head up the street to trade the books in. Lately, I’ve done a decent job of leaving with far fewer books than I brought in to trade—hell, last Friday I came back with no books.

I always have a little mental checklist of books I’m hoping to come across. It mutates and swells, and I get lucky a lot of times. Sometimes I grab stuff at near-random. And other week’s are stale. Increasingly, I search for first editions and interesting mass market paperbacks, a reversal of a previous version of myself who found hardbacks clunky and mass market paperbacks cheap. Mass market editions tend to have wilder art, more interesting designs, and generally take more risks than contemporary, respectable trade paperbacks, as do older hardbacks. I ended up with three first editions. I was not especially looking for any of the books I acquired.

I was looking for certain books of course. Here are some interesting book covers I saw while looking for what I did not find.

I was looking for Walker Percy’s second novel Love Among the Ruins. I’d found a copy at this same book store last year—a first edition in beautiful condition with a really cool cover. I almost bought it (I think it was seven bucks) and now regret not having done so. I’m sure I’ll regret skipping on both of these Percy books, both of which have cover designs by Janet Halverson.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular when I saw this hardback copy of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, but the font on the spine attracted me. Love the cover painting, which is by Richard Powers (I assume this is a different Richard Powers than the American novelist).

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular when I picked up this Bantam collection of Mark Twain stories, which has a very cool uncredited Giuseppe Arcimboldoesque cover. Not sure why I picked it out. But I love the cover.

I was hoping to score a cheap paperback copy of one of David Marskon’s early novels when I came across this edition of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks with a cover by Ben Shahn.

I was looking for anything by Gerald Murnane when I found this beautiful edition of Robert Musil’s Young Torless.

The bookshop I frequent separates “Classic Fiction” from “General Fiction” (with some somewhat arbitrary distinctions, in my opinion)—so I checked under the “PE” section in general fiction for a stray Walker Percy (no luck). Never heard of J.Abner Peddiwell’s The Saber-Tooth Curriculum but I love the simple expressive cover.

Walking past “PE,” “PI,” “PL” etc. I stopped at section on James Purdy to check out this edition of The Nephew. I’ve never been able to get into Purdy—seems so sad—but I love this cover.

I was looking for an original edition of Charles Wright’s 1973 novel Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About; I have it in an omnibus, but I’d love a stand alone if I could find one. I did see this edition of The Messenger. The cover is terrible and boring and has way too much text on it. I found a copy of The Messenger a few months ago with a far more interesting cover.

I was looking for one of the William Melvin Kelley novels I don’t have. I found a bunch of mass market copy paperback versions of his first novel, A Different Drummer. The copy on the left has a cool cover. I think I like my new reissue better though.

I always look for a copy of David Ohle’s cult novel Motorman and I never find it. I do like this vibrant cover for Chad Oliver’s The Shores of Another Sea.

While I was in the sci-fi section, I passed by the Gene Wolfe area, and spied a complete hardback set of his seminal The Book of the New Sun tetralogy. I couldn’t pass up on a first hardback edition of the first in the series, The Shadow of the Torturer:

I also picked up a pristine first edition hardback copy of William Gaddis’s 1994 novel A Frolic of His Own. It’s the only Gaddis novel I’ve yet to read and buying a second copy seems like a good motivation to finally dig in.

I also came across a first edition hardback copy of Padgett Powell’s first novel Edisto. I’ve always felt ambivalent about Powell. He was the writer in residence at the University of Florida when I was an undergrad there in the late nineties. He’d taken the post over from Harry Crews, and I always resented that for some reason, brought that resentment to the few readings I attended, never made it through anything but a few stories. But this copy of Edisto was only four bucks. And check out the blurbs on the back:

There’s my guy Barthelme. And then Percy, who brought me to the store today. I’ll give it a shot.

 

 

 

Donald Barthelme’s Book Recommendations

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Sure–okay, sure, you’ve seen this before (or maybe not), I know I have (I’ve even posted it before). But today is D. Barthelme’s birthday (he’s dead of course), and I’ve read or reread (or, more accurately read) most of his stuff (sans The King, which I’ve been saving) over the past year. Anyway, this here list comes via Kevin Moffett who got it off DB’s former student, Padgett Powell, when he (that is Moffett) was finishing up at my alma mater, the University of Gators (where Powell continues to teach today, having replaced Harry Crews, RIP). Anyway (again with that transition!), check out Moffett’s original share-piece at The Believer; he describes Gainesville’s Friends of the Library Sale, which was always fun. I got a copy of John Barth’s Chimera there (on the list, natch), among other books, but I didn’t get any Barthelme. I’ve read 31 of the 81 books on the list (this includes fantastically awarding myself the “Samuel Beckett entire” entry but hell man I think it’s been counted as one work here (at least by Moffett?), which maybe it should be but no I haven’t read all of Beckett but hell I’ve read a lot, if not enough, but anyway (again!)–31).

RIP Harry Crews — A Rambling Riff on a Southern Great

Harry Crews died today at 76 in Gainesville, FL, where he lived and worked for years.

This isn’t an obituary—I’m sure  you can find them elsewhere (I haven’t looked yet, but they’ll be out there)—it’s more a riff about me than Crews. Solipsistic, narcissistic, sure. Let’s say I feel a sense of unearned pride for the man, a geographical kinship, as if some of his bloody bravura might splatter on me, anoint me, confer on me a glimpse of his strange powers. (And although I would feel this way in any case, I’ll point out that Crews and I shared the same birthday). Maybe I should wait to write, put together a detailed overview of his work, delineate a chronological progression of his life and work . . . But it’s a warm spring day in Florida, I’m three beers down, a small buzz behind my eyes, the whir of the cheap electric fans on my backporch goading me into dim golden memory . . .

I graduated high school in 1997 and went to the University of Florida in Gainesville that fall—just in time to learn that Crews had retired his position in the Creative Writing department (he was also a graduate of the university) that spring. It was disappointing for me.

I’d read a few of Crews’s blistering, blustering novels, dark comic rants about the dirty malfeasance backwood Cracker folk get into after dark, and he’d come to occupy a fabled place in my impressionable mind—a Southern answer to the Bukowski and Henry Miller books I devoured in kind.

I was 18 and dramatically naïve. I honestly thought that I was going to write a Really Great Novel, and I honestly thought that Crews was going to teach me how. In that first semester of college, the poor underpaid graduate student who led the Creative Writing class I took—a class that all but killed a desire to write creatively for years (I write “all but” because I took a second fiction writing class that was the metaphorical nail in the coffin) informed  me that Crews was no longer writer-in-residence (!), that some guy named Padgett Powell had taken up that mantle. This news dispirited me, took some of the wind out of my romantic illusions (without, y’know, properly killing them off). Maybe I’d have stuck it through the program if I thought it might end in a seminar with Crews, it’s hard to say. (I’ll also point out that it took me years to give Padgett Powell a fair read).

I won’t pretend to be sad at the death of Harry Crews: 76 is pretty old if you drank and fought and lived like that man did, and he’s already given more literature to the world than most of us could ever hope to. I was more sad at 18 to learn that I wouldn’t learn from him (not realizing at that age that reading is a way of learning). These statements seem in bad taste as I write them, but I assure you they’re not. You’re being too sensitive. But I do want to connote some reverence for the man, for his work at least, for his tales of rage and poverty, for the truth he sussed out of the swampy south.

Here’s a shift: Barry Hannah, another Southern boy whose work I’ve come to love, was not on my radar until his death in 2010. This isn’t to say I wouldn’t have found his stuff if he hadn’t died then, but I think that we all know what I’m pointing to here, the grand appraisals and reappraisals that we focus on our late writers, whose deaths might entail a second life, a life again in new readers. And Crews deserves readers: His writing is raw and jagged and ugly. It’s hard to imagine someone producing something like A Feast of Snakes or The Gypsy’s Curse today—I mean it would just be too politically incorrect I suppose. Crews is the kind of cult writer whose cult will likely grow a little now, after his death.

Starting places: The anthology Classic Crews collects Crews’s memoir Childhood, the novels Car and The  Gypsy’s Curse, as well as some essays. There’s also Florida Frenzy, an essay collection larded with sex and violence and animals. You can’t go wrong with his novel A Feast of Snakes. Well, maybe you can. It’s actually entirely possible that Crews isn’t for your faint heart or delicate sensibilities—and that’s fine. But for those intrigued, come and get the grit.

Books Acquired, 12.21.2011

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So, obviously I can’t manage to do these “Books Acquired” posts in a timely fashion, let alone chronologically. Anyway, I’m certain of the date I picked up these four because I ended up writing this post about why novels make lousy gifts later that day. As always, the iPhone pic is a bit blurry. It’s tough work lighting books, believe it or not, and they’re usually different dimensions, etc., gripe, whine. Jeez. So these books are: The Crimes of Love by Marky de Sade, which I dunno, I’ve been compelled to read him lately; The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell, which did you know is written entirely in questions? And did you know that Powell was (is) the big-time writer in res at my alma mater? And do you care? And why? The Dennis Cooper novel is Frisk. I always scour this particular bookshop for Cooper, but have never had any luck. So on this particular trip, of course someone has let go of his entire collection of Cooper, like six or seven novels (not God Jr. or the short story collection though, which seemed like good starting places). I picked Frisk sort of at random. I’ve been looking for Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual for a while too, so I was happy to pick it up. I consider it assigned reading in 2012.

I also picked up books as gifts that day, including some children’s books for my kids, and a first edition hardback copy of Brugo Partridge’s A History of Orgies. 

“A Gentleman’s C” — Padgett Powell

“A Gentleman’s C,” a very short story by Padgett Powell

My father, trying to finally graduate from college at sixty-two, came, by curious circumstance, to be enrolled in an English class I taught, and I was, perhaps, a bit tougher on him than I was on the others. Hadn’t he been tougher on me than on other people’s kids growing up? I gave him a hard, honest, low C. About what I felt he’d always given me.

We had a death in the family, and my mother and I traveled to the funeral. My father stayed put to complete his exams–it was his final term. On the way home we learned that he had received his grades, which were low enough in the aggregate to prevent him from graduating, and reading this news on the dowdy sofa inside the front door, he leaned over as if to rest and had a heart attack and died.

For years I had thought that the old man’s passing away would not affect me, but it did.

(From Micro Fiction, edited by Jerome Stern).