Paperback review: You & I, By Padgett Powell

Godot misses another appointment

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The Independent Culture

Two unnamed men sit and watch the world go by, staving off boredom, loneliness and desperation with a meandering conversation that is by turns witty, nonsensical, erudite, asinine and astute. Think Vladimir and Estragon, or Derek and Clive.

The talk is full of puns, epigrams, abrupt changes of subject, non sequiturs that turn out to be sequiturs, and allusions to Bertrand Russell, Jayne Mansfield, Lucille Ball, Ray Charles, Tarzan, Charles Dickens, God, and an imaginary character named Studio Becalmed.

A typical exchange might begin: "It's a miracle./ What is?/ Nothing./ Why'd you say something was?/ Felt like it. Felt like the time." Or: "I want me some morphine./ Why? Because I 'magine it is good'." Or: "What do you know about the desert?/ Nothing./ Okay. End of subject./ Should we go?/ Yes, we should go."

But of course they don't go, they sit right there, maundering on, worrying about getting old ("How long before we smell like old men?/ Last year, dude"). One of them contemplates writing a book called The Ways in Which I Have Been a Coward, but is too cowardly to begin it. They produce aperçus such as: "Half the world is an animal and the other is a meddling high-minded egghead". It's funny, melancholic, and always euphonious – Padgett's word-choice invariably sounds just right. There's something of the crazy wit and absurdity of Flann O'Brien, combined with the bleakness of Samuel Beckett. A joy to read, if you don't mind feeling bewildered occasionally.