TYPICAL is Padgett Powell’s third book, and his first collection of stories. It is divided into four groupings. The first and last groups contain those stories which come closest to traditional narrative, “Typical” and “Letter from a Dogfighter’s Aunt, Deceased” (from the first group) and “Wayne’s Fate” and “The Winnowing of Mrs. Schuping” (from the last) perhaps best illustrative of that style. In between is a variety of other narrative forms, ranging from absurd character sketches in such pieces as “Dr. Ordinary” and “General Rancidity,” to brief approximations of place in “Kansas,” “Texas,” and “South Carolina,” to witty literary games, such as “Labove and Son,” which derives from Faulkner’s THE HAMLET.
Powell relies heavily on voice, and most of his works are presented in first-person narrative. His speakers generally employ a highly personalized form of Southern idiom; in addition they make unexpected leaps of logic which (when they work) surprise the reader with sudden revelations. It is fair to say that, while some of the pieces do leave the reader with a sense of having a grasp on what has been told, most work to deny exactly that satisfaction. Powell writes on the oblique, and his stories follow their own line of rationality.
At his most inventive, Powell creates a highly distinctive voice and style which intrigue and reward the efforts required. Some of these pieces, however, come closer to stunts than successes. Virtuosity for its own sake does become tiring, and few readers will feel compelled to attend to each work with equal intensity. Nevertheless, there are a number of successes in this collection which prove Powell to be a writer of uncommon skill.