Fourteen years ago Padgett Powell published a wonderful first novel, Edisto, that made him a favorite with fans of literary fiction. His work since then has grown knottier and less accessible. This, his fifth book, is a collection of quirky, challenging stories about people (mostly men) who have fumbled away love and friendship.
Powell's writing, as always, is a marvel of pep and invention. His best sentences virtually squirm on the page; they careen like the drunk who walks "stiff-chested and aslant and veering and thin-legged, like the Planter's Peanut on a toot." But too many of these stories dip into the bizarre and lose their way in a surreal fog. A housewife decides to accept the sexual advances of a 12-year-old boy; a man heads for Mexico in search of a 50-pound chihuahua; two friends, one with cancer of the eyeball, the other heartbroken, visit a Chinese woman whose practice of alternative medicine is either a kind of mothering or S&M sex play. Madness is always a paragraph away.
Words in expected sequence keep us sane. Out of order, they threaten us with chaos. Will it be the divine madness of poets, or the gibberish of a garden-variety kook? With Powell you get a bit of both. (Holt, $22.50)