A neutral spirit is a beverage that has been distilled to at least 95% alcohol by volume. It’s also a metaphor for Padgett Powell’s new novel, You & Me.
Distilled: A book-length dialogue between two elderly drunks on a porch, You & Me has been described as “a southern-fried, whiskey-soaked version of Waiting for Godot.” That seems about right, insofar as the protagonists debate life’s big questions and cry out against their own insignificance and mortality. But while Godot pried the words from its characters’s mouths, You & Me revels in a love of argument and babble. More than a distillation of Beckett, it’s a distillation of a lifetime’s worth (or two lifetimes’ worth) of hard-earned wisdom into purified forms of language–aphorisms, proverbs, rhetorical questions, mottos. “There is a fine line between humor and stupidity.” “Dispute nothing.” “Lose it like there’s no tomorrow.”
Neutral: As they prattle on about dignity, insanity, compassion, and death, Powell’s old men seem to be above all these concerns, as if they’re gazing down at earth while being slowly raptured into the afterlife.
It seems to me that the debate about civilization and the nuanced forms it can take, whether democracy is the summum bonum and so forth, whether socialism is tenable or evil, and so forth—
Well, the debate can stop as soon as you recognize that a good half the people on earth are willing to unwrap their Snickers and drop the wrapper as they bite into the candy bar. The egalitarian saviors standing next to them can shut the fuck up right then and there.
That is an indelicate and unattractive figure of speech, shut the fuck up.
I find it indispensable in certain instances, this being one.
What if I were to contend that the egalitarian savior who won’t shut the fuck up is, though, in a sense dropping his own Snickers wrappers all over the environment as well. They are spewing forth in a self-appointed proselytizing that the simple candy eaters did not ask for.
You are strengthening my case, not weakening it.
I can see that.
Half the world is an animal and the other half a meddling high-minded egghead and they are not coming together except in certain forms of predation and exploitation of the other.
Our heroes are part philosopher and part drunken hobo, spinning wry observations out of whatever that crosses their minds, or their field of vision. They can swap stories about Lucille Ball and Jack LaLanne, or they can rap about Grizzly Man and J. Lo. Either too smart or too defeated to think they can change anything about the world, they keep returning to the subject of their own meaninglessness.
Like Diogenes, the ancient Greek who lived as a beggar and believed humans should be more like dogs, the logic of You & Me is always tilting toward madness. Our heroes celebrate the fact that “There is no pressure upon us not to be sloppy.” Grammar and sanity break down together.
I am confused. And getting confuseder.
I am getting wonderier about our mental welfare.
Reading You & Me is like playing a drinking game, already in its late stages, whose rules are being made up as you go along.
Intoxicating: Although it’s about two losers, You & Me is a “winning” book—humble, sly, and full of unexpected rewards. If the dialogue feels tedious and nonsensical at times, so what? We’re on a porch with two Southern drunks. Tedium and nonsense are the air they breathe. Like Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, which was composed entirely of non-sequiturs in the form questions, You & Me is a literary stunt. Having no real story to tell, it examines humor and irrelevance by being humorous and irrelevant. One drunk asks, “Can one talk about something and have it be not germane to itself?” Sure, if one is Padgett Powell. As a Southerner he’s digging close to the roots, in the pure language and plain philosophy of today’s South. As a writer he makes a fine art out of shooting the shit.
- Brian Hurley