by ELLIE RAMBO
Padgett Powell, Indigo (Catapult, 2021), pp. 223.
If I were to start the review of this book the way many of the essays within it begin, I would open with a personal story, which by the third paragraph or so would come around to the book itself, or nearly would. I will not imitate Powell, however, who reports how he once responded to an editor’s request to review a short story collection: “I said Yes meaning No because I do not think a book review serves a man or a woman or a book.” He instead wrote “a little profile” of the author.
Indigo, Powell’s first nonfiction book, is made up of many such little profiles, among other things. Many of these travel pieces, reflective essays, and artist profiles were previously published in periodicals, in between the publication of his novels and short story collections. His 1984 debut novel Edisto was critically acclaimed, but his writing about fiction in these essays is as informed by teaching writing as it is by being a professional writer himself, as he often mentions assigning books or discussing writing in a workshop format. His thoughts on “schoolmarming,” as he calls it, are some of the funnier asides in the book: “[I]t is true that in becoming a schoolmarm I learned to talk about writing, if not precisely in ways that might be called literary criticism or even review criticism; in schoolmarming what we do is ask how might this writing be different so that it is not this bad next time.” Still, Powell does a lot of writing about writing here, or at least a lot of writing about writers: Flannery O’Connor, Don Barthelme, Peter Taylor, Grace Paley.
The writing about writers is interspersed with other essays, and the arrangement of these various pieces makes it hard to get your bearings, and hard to keep them once you find them. Although sometimes the order is amusing—consecutively, “Gumbo” is about eating gumbo, “Squirrel” is about eating squirrel, and “William Trevor” is about the Irish fiction writer—the joke eventually wears thin. Although much of the writing, especially on literature, can’t really be described as “about” any one particular thing, it would still be helpful to organize these essays in some manner—this would help a casual reader dip in and out of the collection. At the very least, subject sections would isolate the travel writing gems from the (intentionally) meandering lecture on creative writing, which does not recall the kind of in-person literary event for which most readers are nostalgic.
Powell is at his nonfiction best when writing about places, and not for the reasons many travel writers are praised. It’s not so much his ability to evoke a place in vivid detail that is notable, although he demonstrates this ability in “New Orleans.” Instead, it’s the way the places he writes about seem haunted by other places, lost opportunities, and alternative choices the author might make. In an essay named after his late dog, Spode, Powell describes living in Rome without speaking Italian, and realizing “while I was hiding in Rome from Italy, suddenly Texas, where I had spent the previous ten years in a kind of civilian Vietnam tour (roofing) came into focus.” The following description does not evoke Italy, as the reader might expect, but a place which preoccupies Powell now that he’s no longer there:
Texas’s pride in itself, which reduces or inflates to pride in pride itself sometimes, suddenly became a manageable nostalgia. Strange emotions are to be had if you spend a year in a country you think full of people yelling at you under the duress of comprehending nothing they are yelling. Even country music suddenly sounded spectrally good; somehow I had a tape by the Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt, I think) that I played in the high-ceilinged artists’ studios in the Academy, and it sounded like a music of the spheres with what may as well have been Odysseus’s sirens singing it.
Significant portions of Powell’s essay about bar hopping in New Orleans are not about bars, but are devoted to his (unsuccessful) attempt to ascend from the first-floor block party of the French Quarter to the second- and third-floor residential Quarter, where the “hardly accessible” locals live, “who keep the visitor in some kind of awe of the place.” In “Bermuda,” Powell’s attempt to write about the island keeps reverting self-consciously back to the widespread misconception of the island’s geographical location, which is in fact far outside the Caribbean. Even in “Saving the Indigo,” which is more a call for conservation than a travel essay, the author is caught up in the nightmare fantasy that the eastern indigo snake is extinct in the wild. As he tramps around the remaining longleaf pine forest of the southeast, Powell’s search for the indigo snake reshapes his childhood fascination with the species into “a manageable nostalgia” even as the constant threat to the snake’s habitat preoccupies him.
A different essay focused on habitats—this one a profile of the “habitat painter” C. Ford Riley—explains some of the unevenness of the nonfiction collection itself. In describing the painter’s process, which involves putting the work in progress into a gilt frame and looking not at the canvas but at its reflection in a mirror across the room, Powell neatly describes how important context is to an aesthetic work, even during its creation:
The sudden vantage from being on top of the painting to seeing it as if across the billiards parlor or the main room of the lodge is a jolt, as if a visual trick is at hand. The long view conveys a sudden power and exactitude and correctness one does not see close up.
The same is true of many of Powell’s essays: in smaller doses, and interspersed with different pieces of writing, the digressive style could be refreshing, charming. For Powell’s nonfiction, the flattering long view across the billiards parlor is within the pages of the magazines and on the websites where the works were originally published. By pulling the essays from this context and publishing them one after another, they lose much of their power and their exactitude. If you see them on the wall, however, across the main room of the lodge: they are masterpieces of the genre.