Snakes, Arm Wrestling, and Childhood Adventures in Padgett Powell’s ‘Indigo’

Lee Polevoi


Indigo: Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving, and Some Things in Between

By Padgett Powell


233 pages


Some literary voices are so distinctive that they mark a writer’s authority on the very first page. Indigo, Florida-born author Padgett Powell’s first nonfiction book, starts like this:


“Against its reputation as a pastime of drunks, against the notion that it is stupid, arm wrestling does most efficiently what sport is asked to do, which is translate the muddle of success and failure in life into the knowable: who wins and who doesn’t.”


This singular voice won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Powell’s work, especially his first novel, Edisto, a picaresque coming-of-age story that’s become something of a cult classic. Not to belabor the point, but here’s that novel’s intriguing first sentence: “I’m in Bluffton on a truancy spree, cutting, we call it, but all you do is walk off the unfenced yard during recess, where three hundred hunched-over kids are shooting marbles.”



One way or another, a voice like this is sure to draw the reader in.


Like Tom Drury, another little-known, but equally talented writer, Padgett Powell inhabits his own literary universe, and makes the rules for our readerly participation. His wide range of “difficult” novels and short stories almost guarantee him a certain level of obscurity, but readers who know these works would never mistake him for anyone else.


And now Powell’s fans get a different view of the stubbornly individualistic author. The essays in Indigo encompass, among other things, a profile of Cleve Dean, a one-time arm-wrestling champion who has “ballooned to nearly seven hundred pounds”; memories of an eventful childhood in Florida; a quirky tour of the French Quarter in New Orleans; and insightful (though frustratingly brief) assessments of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Donald Barthelme, and William Trevor.



Powell is also a huge dog-lover. In the essay, “Spode,” a moving tribute to a beloved American Staffordshire terrier, he gets to the heart of our love for these domesticated creatures:


“A dog is the only friend you can have in life who will go with you wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go, without question or putting on pants … You do not perceive in a dog the mechanism of choice, or preference, or judgment, or valuing one thing over another … He is coming with you because you are you. You? Let’s go! With you, it’s all good, he says, and you cannot help but love a thing that says that.”


In a short piece eulogizing Denis Johnson, the brilliant writer who died in 2017, Powell spends much of the time talking about a “dumb blurb” he once wrote for a fellow author that, on the face of it, has nothing to do with Johnson. He does eventually return to the author in question, so no harm, no foul—but readers seeking a more linear approach would be well advised to look elsewhere.



In “Saving the Indigo,” Powell describes his lifelong obsession with encountering “one of the free world’s last indigo snakes” in the backwoods landscapes of Florida and Georgia. His journey to find the endangered reptile involves tagging along with several experts in the field. When he finally achieves his goal, Powell pauses for a moment before the snake wrangler he’s accompanying urges him to move fast:


“The snake is on this pile of logs and limbs and stuff becoming, you know, peat, and she is facing, and not far from, a cliff of sorts in the pile of logging detritus that drops off sharply, and growing up this cliff are prodigious very thick blackberries. If she crawls just six inches she will be in heavy briars, inextricable. She can probably just enter the very slash pile where she is without moving anywhere. I don’t know why she has not already disappeared.”


Charming, cranky, idiosyncratic—any number of adjectives describe the tone and texture of Padgett Powell’s work. And if Indigo moves readers to return to his iconic oeuvre of Southern fiction, so much the better.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, will publish a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash, in 2022.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Pressmaster (Pexels, Creative Commons)

--Blue Bird (Pexels, Creative Commons)

--Jan Kapriva (Pexels, Creative Commons)



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