March 16, 2016

Book Review: "Cries for Help, Various," by Padgett Powell

Cries for Help, Various, by Padgett Powell

Cries for Help, Various
By Padgett Powell
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

You might not have heard of Padgett Powell, but I guarantee you've heard of his fans. This book alone features blurbs from heavy hitters such as Richard Ford, Amy Hempell, and even the late Saul Bellow. So if this guy has the support from some seriously big names, how has he not become one himself? You could argue it's because of his experimental tendencies. His 2009 novel the Interrogative Mood is composed entirely of questions, an experiment he repeats with two stories in this collection, "The Imperative Mood" (entirely demands, although it takes a surprising turn for the heartfelt by the end) and "The Indicative Mood" (one of the funniest here, consisting mostly of non-judgmental declarations, with a great running gag where it slips into, refuses to entertain, and corrects a few commands itself, so "Give me some wine" becomes "I would like some wine" (107) after a swift reprimand), but he debuted with the skewed coming-of-age story Edisto, so that's not what's at work. Maybe it's just because people don't read like they used to.

Point is, Cries for Help, Various is a funny book. I know I call a lot of books funny, but this is one of the funniest I've read all year, with an absurdly high success ratio for jokes. Although he sometimes slips into annoying racial humor, as on the somewhat wearying "Thang Phong and the Son of the Chief of the Police" (he also slips into sexism sometimes, which is also frustrating), he still finds humor elsewhere; that same story features a riff where the narrator can't remember one of the character's names and therefore changes it every time he mentions it. Sometimes the humor is used for its own sake and sometimes it's used to point out broader dysfunctions and absurdities; check out the tag-team of "Gift" and "Sisters," a pair of stories that explore the ramifications of a man buying his girlfriend porcupines he believes are earrings. Powell is quite fond of building broader arcs across a series of stories; sometimes it's more subtle, like how "Getting You Some Cocktail" unpacks the party set up in "Flood Parade," while other times it's explicit, like the satire found in the Boris Yeltsin stories.

Powell's a big fan of absurdity: besides the porcupines, you get salamanders cooking, a young Janis Joplin meeting a Charles Dickens look-sound-act-a-like in an orphanage (an awesome story, both in terms of the gags and Powell's empathy), and a story called "Wearing a Meat Shirt and Killing a Snake." When he couples this with the brief length of many of these stories, you're left with an almost dreamlike flow, entering into a moment when it's convenient and leaving at the first available time. It kind of makes your head spin over the course of the whole book, which is a little to its detriment, as the dreamland effect loses some impact when spread across the whole collection. Of course, maybe my mistake was reading the whole thing over the course of a few days. I imagine this more as the sort of collection that's meant to be dipped into every so often, the sort where you savor a story or two, read something else, and then come back. It's funny however you read it, though.

Out of 10: 8.5

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, March 16, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |