It’s practically impossible to discuss Padgett Powell’s You & Me without mentioning Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The two texts are so remarkably linked by their structure, the cadence of their character’s language, and their thematic explorations, it’s impossible to miss. “All we do is talk and sit here,” one of the nameless men states outright. But to further illustrate, here is an entirely random passage from Powell’s book:
What is the big picture?
Start. I can’t. Today. No more big-picture mauning. Your yellow-haired turtles is a big picture maun at an acceptably veiled, small-picture scale. That I can take.
You have invented this word, maun.
Maybe I have.
We can practically hear Vladimir and Estragon hiding behind Powell’s words, asking their immortal question: Shall we go?, the reply, Yes, lets. And, then, of course, they do not move.
Reducing Powell’s biting and witty novel to an exercise (homage?) in Beckett is egregiously unfitting, however. Powell’s eye is decidedly sharper, his wit more acerbic, and he captures our modern manner of speech in wicked detail. What’s remarkable about You and Me is that Powell exposes humanity through simple dialogue and nothing more.
The plot is simple, really. Two gentlemen, of undistinguished age (though likely tilting more towards the golden years, given the length of time on their hands to sit and discuss matters of great unimportance), sit alone, together, presumably on a porch, likely in view of a street. There is alcohol involved. Eventually, the alcohol runs out, but they do not move. Topics are broached and abandoned through alternating lines of dialogue. Topics as varied as pederast bus drivers, yard sales, orange jumpsuits, Kenyan boys in need of adoption, Miles Davis, Jayne Mansfield, and a hilarious presence known as Studio Becalmed are ruminated on.
Points are made, dissension occurs, hilarity sometimes ensues. All in a days work until the days run out. Forever and ever, Amen.
The conversations are broken into unnumbered chapters, which I choose to interpret as a full day of conversation. Others may argue which, I suspect, Powell would have no problem with since his minimalist text practically cries out for the blanks to be filled in. The names of the men and hinted at but never revealed. At one point, one of the men calls the other “Charles” but then admits, “I was thinking of Ray Charles.” Much like Beckett, Powell lets the reader do much of the contextualizing. Every scene will be interpreted differently based upon circumstance and the reader’s outside influence, but the characters remain constant, their conversation the one stability in a fluid sea of meaninglessness.
Unlike Beckett, however, Powell is mercilessly funny. His protagonists are whip smart trash talkers, who occasionally want to set the world on fire, but are unable to do so either because of their drunkenness or because they find solidarity in their companionship:
Are we going to have fun today?
Are we going to live today as if it is the last day of our lives?
But we know from testimonials of Close Callers that we should.
But we don’t do it.
We can’t conceive of how you actually do it.
No. Go ahead. Propose that we live right now as if this is our last day. What do we do? Where do we go?
I want to sit right here and think about The End.
It’s a lighthearted conversation that could be had by anyone at any time. And it’s one that will bring a slight smirk to your face, given that (if you’ve been paying attention to the book thus far) you will see some facet of yourself in these two men. But, all of that changes a mere two lines later, once the implications of non-action come into perspective: “God wasted two whole spaces on us as human integers. We’re nils in terms of becoming all that we can become.
“God wasted two whole spaces on us as human integers,” doesn’t exactly balance the delicate mood purveyed through most of You & Me. It’s a ten ton hammer of realization and disappointment. Yet Powell tosses off these lines so effortlessly that you never feel threatened or put upon for being complicit in their laziness. After all, their conversation is too enjoyable, too exact not to want to stick around for more. Discovering just where in the hell the conversation will lead next is what keeps us motivated, both in You & Me and in our daily routines.
No discussion of Powell would be complete without mentioning his bona fide Southern credentials. Though no specific place is given as a locale of You & Me, Powell does clue us in: it’s somewhere between Bakersfield, California and Jacksonville, Florida. Powell no longer has to explicitly determine his setting for us like he did in the locale-heavy Edisto and Edisto Revisited. He’s moved on, exploring the realm of fictional possibilities in both 2009’s The Interrogative Mood and You & Me.
Powell’s characters radiate Southern charm and consistency, even with limited interaction and zero movement. He has damn near mastered his craft and since all it seems we’re capable of is sitting and waiting, passing the time through conversation, we could do worse things than indulging in You & Me, but we likely could do no better.