A reader finishing A Woman Named Drown will not, if asked for one, be able to supply a name for the story’s narrator beyond the first-person pronoun. Searching will produce an incongruous nickname, “new girl” (the narrator is male), and a reference to “Al,” a name the narrator tells a black boxer he can call him. The boxer is enigmatic about his own handle, pronouncing his name Egret but signing it, “with painstaking concentration,” Willie Ebert. The narrator calls his girlfriend Miss Dr. Eminence in Love with Polanski, to summarize her initial hopes for his career and her subsequent dropping of him for someone else. The originator of the nickname “new girl” is known as Sweetlips; his companion is Roach. Other minor characters are the Orphan, the Veteran, the Pacifist, Tush-hog, and a dart-throwing lady named Wallace.
The names of people preoccupy the narrator of A Woman Named Drown, just as they did the narrator of Padgett Powell’s much-praised first novel, Edisto (1984). In that book, a chapter titled “How He Got His Name” details the christening of a stranger who becomes the hero’s father-figure. He is named Taurus, and takes over for the narrator’s real father, “the Progenitor.” The adolescent narrating Edisto is Simons Everson Manigault, but “you say it ’Simmons.’ I’m a rare one-m Simons.” In this strange, name-sensitive world, introductions are assayed and identity is a grade of ore: “’Are you Bob Patterson?’ Taurus says. ’It’s Robert.’ He doesn’t move toward us or anything, just says It’s Robert like you’d say It’s candy.”
All this by way of considering the present novel’s title. The woman, it happens, is not really named Drown. Her name is Mary, and she once was married to someone named “Sam, or Stump” who is very likely deceased. The narrator meets Mary in Knoxville after quitting his doctoral work in chemistry under a professor named Tunkie. The narrator quits, as he is suspicious of people with plans, and embarks on a voyage to know the lives of “people who are anything but custodians of their chances in life.” Setting out on the voyage, he meets Mary, who becomes captain of the ship, as she is already acquainted with the purposeless livers of life and has an etiquette of approach to teach the neophyte narrator. Purposeless etiquette is observed in the way the narrator meets Mary: They wave to each other day after day. After enough waving, the narrator comes in for a drink and discovers that Mary is Drown to people in Knoxville, who identify her with the character of that name whom she played in a local theater production. The fictional Drown slept with a black man and this behavior is attributed to Mary, necessitating the wearing of a disguise when Mary goes to the grocery store.
The narrator offers to introduce himself by name to Mary, but she turns him down. The code of purposeless living dictates a “no-bio rule,” meaning skip the inessentials such as who you are, what you do, and where you came from. This suits the narrator, as he has had it with people who want to actualize themselves and want him to actualize himself. He dons Mary’s husband’s clothes and meets Mary’s friends, a cast of nicknames who drink and exchange anecdotes in the requisite oblivion of purposelessness. Mary, true to the code, reveals nothing of her past. She shoots a mean game of pool and raises flowers. The narrator’s senses of her are all he or the reader will know, and if the narrator’s perceptions are nonstandard, oblique, and arranged in sentences like Klimt paintings done by James Joyce, then Mary may, if only for an instant, shine with the brilliance of purpose: “Mary is moving through rich banks of azalea, her head alone above the creamy reds, nickel arc of cold water lobbing heavily all around her.”
Thus Powell links two people who are serious about not being serious. The narrator cannot overcome his scholarly habits, which allow him to record what happens, and how absolutely absurd every person alive really is, with the scandalously purposeful notion of finding connections and meaning. He takes to the dead man’s clothes like a seed of corn to a warm furrow. He relishes those people who have accepted total ambivalence. Once settled in with Mary, he returns to his former room to give away his things. James, the janitor (who calls himself “the factotum”), is “arguably the only normal human being in the place.” With this pronouncement, the reader is alert: The word “normal” has been uttered, implying a vision of hierarchy as when a parent viewing his newly-converted-to-punk daughter says, “She used to be normal.” Janitor James is normal because he is at home with ambivalence. He congratulates the narrator on the room’s fine view:The view was of an adjacent building’s roof with a compressor on it. With a deafening screech, the compressor engaged. He [James] did not flinch: he took a deep, satisfying breath, as if showing me the quality of good mountain air.
For the narrator, there are two kettles of fish that make up the world of people—those who flee the unformulability of themselves, such as self-actualizers and business tycoons like his father, and...
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