You & Me
By Padgett Powell
Padgett Powell’s You & Me is consistently funny, which—as with many other pieces of recent American fiction—is both its strength and its weakness. The novel is composed as a series of dialogues between a pair of aging misanthropes who sit on a porch, “within walking distance of a liquor store,” posing and parsing questions about things they don’t understand.
The list is infinite, they admit; the men become a pair of drunken Socrateses, impotently interrogating pop culture, semantics, the origin of clichés, barely remembered moments from history, and most often, their own conversation. Bits of their idle chatter resurface within the novel, forming recurring tropes and characters. An impossibly named relative, Studio Becalmed, first mentioned in a joke, develops into a quasi-mythological character whose early death symbolizes the passing of an America that the characters nostalgically exalt. A reference to R. Crumb’s 1968 “Keep on Truckin’” cartoon leads to an appeal for Crumb to return to the America he abandoned, or at least to placate the men with “drawings of feet and thick women.”
The call to Crumb is the kind of melancholic, sarcastic appeal that characterizes Powell’s men; both are a special breed of outcast. Hyperaware of their own exile, the men perch on the edge of a world that the reader never sees, weighing their fecklessness and laughing at their own misfortune. These are outcasts after postmodernism, who acknowledge themselves as “talky bums with decent clothes and odor under control but bums all the same.” Faced with their own nothingness—“God wasted two whole spaces on us as human integers,” one integer says—the men wait for old age and death, gabbing away in the meantime.
Their conversation becomes both a defense and a way of buying time, as the characters try to use humor to bate the cold finger of death. They glibly ask each other when they’ll start to smell like old men or be forced to join the “wheelchair circle.” Gallows humor is one of Powell’s strengths, but like some of America’s best comic voices—Sam Lipsyte, or George Saunders in his later work—he uses comedy to dodge the darker issues his characters want to raise. “I think there is a point after which the jokes stop and we have to figure out how to die,” one of the men says toward the end of the novel, as death intrudes on their conversation.
Unfortunately, Powell never gets to that point. Instead he taunts the reader with an unfulfilled promise: “At some point we will stop joking about [death] and become afraid.” If this occurs, it is outside the pages of the novel, which remains an evasive, nimble dance of irreverence.