We expect our writers to write about madness. Not infrequently, the writers we admire are themselves a little mad, and their work strikes us as knowing communiquÇs that reveal things about our world a more traditional perspective might overlook. Ted Turner would likely think Dostoyevsky a mad man, but who would you rather consult if you wished to learn something about the human condition?
Yet the sort of madness that achieves a literary vogue is attenuated. Christopher Smart and John Clare were quite troubled, but they were also marvelous poets. Most people who have lost their minds, on the other hand, have also lost their ability to charm us for very long, or to provide us with secrets to the universe. Padgett Powell’s new collection of stories, Aliens of Affection, is about people who suffer from serious mental illnesses. They do not make sense, because they are bereft of their senses. I am sure some will think them seers, that Powell is offering an indictment of what passes for sanity through the deviant takes of his characters, but such an assessment is naive and insults Powell’s artistic accomplishment. His characters do get in a few good licks now and again, but for the most part are licked, and reading these stories amounts to a hallucinatory exploration of their troubled minds.
Powell has assembled an impressive variety of disturbed citizens—some rich, some poor, some brilliant, some stupid, some so gone it’s impossible to tell. “Scarliotti and the Sinkhole” concerns a Floridian named Rod who lives in a trailer he imagines is located over a sinkhole. Rod has decided to rename himself Scarliotti. From the start, the identity crisis proves debilitating. “In the Pic N’ Save Green Room, grits were free. Scarliotti, as he liked to call himself, though his real name was Rod, Scarliotti ate free grits in the Green Room. To Rod, grits were virtually sacramental; to Scarliotti, they were a joke…”
While crossed culinary tastes are a tangible enough problem for Rod and Scarliotti, it gets worse. They are getting over an injury, as the hapless Rod was riding his motorcycle when struck by the side-mirror of a passing truck. He must ride a bicycle now, though his only destination is a Lil’ Champ, where he seeks out beer and the company of a dowdy female clerk, which is just as well since Scarliotti’s—or more likely Rod’s—first attempt at seduction amounts to the following ejaculation: “I would dog to dog you.”
Initially, the Rod-Scarliotti tandem provides plenty of silliness. Whoever this redneck named Rod who calls himself Scarliotti is, he’s an enjoyable goof. “He was imagining life in the hole—how cool? how dark? how wet? Bats or blind catfish? The most positive speculation he could come up with was that it was going to save on air-conditioning, then maybe on clothes. Maybe you could walk around naked, and what about all the things that had gone down sinkholes over the years, houses and shit, at your disposal maybe…”
By the end of the story, however, the laughter has died, as it always does in such cases. Rod has somehow bedded the clerk, but his bliss has triggered his undoing, though the reader, like, presumably, Rod himself, is given no warning about the fact that Rod has probably gone away for good. The post-coital stage belongs to Scarliotti alone. “Scarliotti woke up and looked out the window and saw a dog and a turtle….’Ballhoggey wollock dube city, man. Your dog,’ he said to the girl, ‘is licking that turtle in its face. That turtle can bite, man….I don’t want to even go into salmonella….Your dog’s tongue would look like a…shoe tongue.” More jabber, until: “That turtle idn’ doing shit but getting licked in the face and taking it.” To which the girl ominously replies: “I don’t have a dog.”
Powell is that variety of Southern raconteur who specializes in dispensing authentic colloquialisms to season his home-grown anecdotes. Not only has the Rod-Scarliotti insanity been truthfully rendered, it has been rendered in accurate Florida redneck vernacular. The repeated use of “man,” placing “even” after “want to” (as opposed to the more customary usage that would place it before), and “idn’ doing shit but getting his face licked and taking it” are only a few examples of Powell’s careful ear. Whatever may be said for the way highly educated people talk, there is no denying the playful inventiveness of what James Carville condescendingly refers to as “trailer trash.”
Powell is also deep into one of most forbidden literary passions of our politically puritanical day: He writes intoxicating sentences for the sake of writing intoxicating sentences. Notice the lines about grits quoted above. The repetition of “Scarliotti” sends the opening sentence spinning along with a wonderful rhythm, yet at the same time creates the sort of stop-and-go, uncertain pacing that prepares the reader for an encounter with a fragmented consciousness. These are details that craftsmen and careful readers adore.
Up the social ladder by perhaps a rung we find the eponymous “Wayne.” Wayne is a stoner, recently clipped of wife and job. Down at the local bar, Wayne meets an imposing black man who is a roofer, as Wayne used to be. Wayne announces, apropos of nothing, that he doesn’t understand Jesse Jackson.
Black guy: “You don’t understand Jesse Jackson?”
Black guy: “I don’t understand Mickey Mantle.”
Wayne: “Sounds like a wiener.”
Black guy: “What?”
Wayne: “I dig it.”
Black guy: “You crazy.”
That is the best Wayne can muster as his life goes down the drain— “Stoweno”—though in passing he does admit to his new friend that “I don’t understand Jesse Jackson or Mickey Mantle or Deion Sanders.”
“Wayne” is written in seven sections—a structurally shrewd move, as these sections further emphasize Wayne’s dissipation. In the last, Wayne has become largely incoherent, and we are greeted by the narrator, who tells us he envies Wayne’s matter-of-fact approach to life. Of course, Wayne takes life as a matter of course because he’s steeped to the gills on cannabis and delusion. We are surprised to find that the narrator has been slumming along with us all the time, and jolted to discover he’s so sentimental about Wayne, all of which makes Wayne somehow even more real, as if the story has stopped being a story and has suddenly come to life. A worthy trick.
Perhaps the most remarkable stories in this collection are the ones in the cycle titled “All Along the Watchtower.” These stories deal with characters who have gotten completely derailed, but Powell refuses to provide any guidance. The characters speak for themselves in long, sometimes hilarious, sometimes difficult monologues. We are solidly in Benjy Compson territory, though Powell’s people—unlike Faulkner’s Benjy—are contemporary and sophisticated.
In the first story, “Chihuahua,” we are introduced to a highly educated writer who still has a way with words but doesn’t do as well with reality. His babble is as humorous as the other characters’ in Aliens of Affection, though his syntax and vocabulary are much more complex. For this reason, at first one is almost induced to give him more credit than he’s due. And for this reason, at first one enjoys a carefree, albeit bizarre, ride. Here’s a random sample: “A hayride with a buxom laughing lass of East European stock is a good thong, I mean thing. Drinking some wine and ravishing her should she want that, also. If she does not, hail fellow well met and get out of the wagon in a good homey spray of moonlight and be of good cheer.”
On it goes, until the reader figures out that the narrator was supposed to report to the loony bin—which he calls Taco Charley’s—but instead, as he informs us, has skipped the country and gone to Mexico. He takes up with a calming Mexican nurse who arrives daily with a handful of calming pills. Furthermore, he believes he must find a 50-pound Chihuahua. Once in Mexico, his soaring discourses include sage bits of social criticism, though he’s still south of the border while south of the border: “Answers are to be found, when they are to be found, in the dirt. Questions of self-actualization would seem to be moot when you find yourself in Mexico in lazy pursuit of an improbable dog.”
At the start, such talk is absorbing entertainment, but as it goes on page after page, you begin to worry about the narrator and finally about Powell himself. Things seem out of control. As Joseph Mitchell discovered when he wrote so memorably about Joe Gould, the mad professor of New York City, a decent vocabulary and verbal poise do not amount to making sense, much less wisdom. Nor should such a combination win our trust. The key moment in “Chihuahua” comes when the narrator announces, “One day the sky was albemarle. One day it struck me that the sky, which looked like pink and blue marble, should be called albemarle, and I left.”
The pronouncement seems innocuous, but about 10 pages later, when we arrive at the final installment of the cycle—the title story “Aliens of Affection”—we discover that this narrator is named Mr. Albemarle. He has no idea where he is but believes his duty is to walk along a high wall as a sentry. As his garbled thoughts proceed, it is clear we are in an asylum. It is also clear that the previous narrator never made it to Mexico, though he did make it to Taco Charley’s and indeed found a nurse who daily handed him calming pills. By the end of “Aliens of Affection,” you feel a little out of sorts, lonely and unsure of yourself. You have learned something about the mad world without affection.