Southern Discomfort

Novelist Padgett Powell draws on his Florida upbringing to examine -- with sometimes disturbing accuracy -- his Southern brethren

The resulting chapter-as-preface, though clearly a piece of fiction, proposes that characters in Southern fiction are all, on one level or another, defeated. Does this description hold for the Southern writer of today? "Implicitly here I've got to read that thing and pretend to understand what I intended to mean," Powell laughs. "The thesis there is that the people of the South are whipped and won't admit it -- some will, some don't -- and I suppose the corollary thesis is that the writer, their chronicler, the person from them who can write, is also whipped and will or won't admit it." But don't go thinking this idea suddenly makes sense of the style and oddness of Southerners. "All of this was probably just designed to enrage a certain sort of proud person," says Powell. "That's its aim. Its aim isn't to be right or smart."

It's hard to measure enragement. But the 1998 edition sold more than any other, leaving the publisher quite un-enraged. "They're apparently happy with it," notes Powell. "They don't care that they've insulted their audience."

All this talk of the South followed from a question about whether, as a Floridian, Powell strictly qualifies as Southern. It's a question that needn't have been asked, considering the evidence. Such as the fact the he can tell an anecdote about William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson whose punchline goes, "He promised to get it published if he didn't have to read the novel but could keep the bottle of whiskey." And that he knows where to find top-quality handmade knives (Randall Knives in Orlando). And that he can roll out an endearing, buttery, fluster-inducing charm ("Your name is beautiful," he offers, apropos of nothing). All sure marks of Southernness.

But best of all, Powell's language is a feast, and it's funny in a way that's rooted in the cadence and timing of the South. In Edisto Revisted, Simons, fleeing the unexpected happiness of a relationship (with his first cousin, but incest is a whole 'nother story), ends up in Louisiana and stops his car at "a logging canal on a bayou named, as near as I can tell, Tennessee Williams." Along the canal "shortly came loping toward me a giant nutria, bounding part beaver, part rat." Louisiana seems to him "a weird admixture of ordinary South -- landscaped colonial brick Farmers & Merchants Banks at crossroads where there appears no need for a bank, or for a crossroads, or for roads, and no farms are about -- and unordinary South."

Powell's writing, ingrained in yet alienated from his surroundings, chronicles the boys who shoot nutria for kicks after a day at the bank. Noticing that even the ordinary South is rather queer, he's whipped, possibly. But good-humored about it.

As part of the Creative Writing Program Reading Series, Powell reads from his works at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 25, at Washington University's Hurst Lounge, Room 201 in Duncker Hall. The event is free; call 935-7130 for more information.

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