How many struggling writers wouldn’t give their eyeteeth to be in Padgett Powell’s predicament? Since the publication of Edisto, his highly praised 1984 debut novel about a young boy’s eccentric upbringing in the Deep South, Powell has been in lonely competition with himself to fulfill the promise of his first book’s success. Unfortunately, subsequent short story collections and novels (including an oddly muted sequel, Edisto Revisited, in 1996) have failed to build the reputation and readership that were once predicted for this enormously gifted writer. His latest novel, Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men, is such a radical departure in style from his previous work that one is hard-pressed to ascertain whether it represents a bold new direction for the author or a nose-thumbing retreat into experimental obscurantism. Whatever its intent, the book is unlikely to garner Powell new readers or bring much satisfaction to his admirers.
Clocking in at a meager 134 pages (with an inordinate amount of white space), Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men is divided into dozens of brief vignette-like chapters, many of them less than a page or two in length. The story line is comprised of an allegorical reverie unfolding in the imagination of Mrs. Hollingsworth, a fiftyish suburban mother and wife, as she sits at the kitchen table writing her weekly shopping list. Before long, the images in her head and on the page begin taking on an independent life that both delights and disturbs her. As a kind of paradigm for the art of fiction writing—weaving form and structure out of desire and transgression—Mrs. Hollingsworth’s adventures in storytelling seem in part a celebration of the myth-making capacity latent within each of us. It’s a serviceable theme for a short novel, but Powell works too hard at fashioning a collective unconscious for his daydreaming protagonist. The disjointed narrative touches on weighty cultural themes without illuminating them in any significant way.
Onto the stage of Mrs. Hollingsworth’s increasingly surreal fantasies step the characters of Ted Bundy and Lee Harvey Oswald like trash-talking cousins to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The two killers are employed by a zany media tycoon named Roopit Mogul, whose goal is to locate a citizen who best embodies the ideal of the “New Southerner.” To this end, Bundy and Oswald descend upon the populace with a futuristic “gizmo” that projects life-size holograms of Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest. Not everyone can “see” the hologram, however. As Roopit Mogul explains:
My people in science tell me the emotionally disturbed man may prove most sensitive to this kind of image, but I do not want an unstable candidate. The successful candidate will serve as a prototype man for the New Southerner, a man, if I may say so, much like me, whom I will then have eugenically engineered to found a line of men in the New South who will perforce raise up the Old by eliminating the genetic dearth effected by the War…
The search entails a postmodern grab bag of vaudeville slapstick, ribaldry, and social satire (frozen foods and National Public Radio are typical targets of the book’s sarcasm and scorn). At one point, Lee Harvey Oswald is overcome with lascivious desire and crumbles to the ground in masturbatory ecstasy. During a dinner party, Roopit Mogul offers a disquisition on the topic, “Why does the black man take to the cell phone so hard?” As for Mrs. Hollingsworth, her feverish imaginings dissolve with improbable lyricism in the end. The book concludes with a hollow encomium to hearth and home: “She had written her husband back into her life, her life back into itself.”
The character of Mrs. Hollingsworth first appeared in a short story, “Trick or Treat,” in Powell’s 1998 collection Aliens of Affection. She was a rounded and fascinating presence in the story, which told of her sly sexual flirtation with a smart-mouthed 12-year-old boy. The novel, on the other hand, reduces Mrs. Hollingsworth to a cardboard cipher for the book’s murky themes. When not taking easy aim at yuppie consumerism or the commodification of Civil War nostalgia, Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men is frustratingly abstruse. Perhaps one day an enterprising graduate student will give us an annotated version of the novel explaining its incoherence. (Academic pretension is another object of the book’s ridicule when Mrs. Hollingsworth finds herself mistakenly enrolled in a university course titled “Theorizing Diaspora, Adjudicating Hybridity.”)
Because the avant-garde impulse is so rarely represented or supported in mainstream literature, Padgett Powell deserves credit for attempting an energetic experimental work that recalls the 1960s and 70s heyday of writers like John Barth and Donald Barthelme. In fact, Barthelme was Powell’s writing teacher and mentor at the University of Houston in the 1980s. But this isn’t the kind of material that plays to Powell’s strengths of observation and droll verisimilitude. For those who are as yet unfamiliar with what an exceptional writer he is, the strongest evidence is to be found in Edisto, one of the best American novels of the last twenty years.
– Bob Wake