Summer reading: Kevin Sampsell on Padgett Powell
Kevin Sampsell is the author, most recently, of "A Common Pornography," part memoir, part loosely structured snapshots of growing up in the 1970s and '80s. The book's layers also explore dark, long-kept family secrets that emerged after his estranged father's death. In addition to writing, Sampsell is the publisher of Future Tense Books, an independent house focused on experimental fiction and poetry, based in Portland, Ore., and editor of the mystery anthology "Portland Noir."
Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading specific books during the summer?
Kevin Sampsell: For some reason, I remember finding great comfort in Padgett Powell's books after breaking up with a longtime girlfriend. It started with "Edisto" and then his story collection, "Typical," and then the underrated follow-up, "Edisto Revisited," which was pretty new at that time.
JC: What year was it, and how old were you?
KS: 1997 -- a year that will live in infamy. Ha! I was 30 years old and having some kind of weird midlife crisis. I guess I thought that 30 was midlife. Maybe it is.
JC: Where were you?
KS: This was in Portland, where I still am and forever will be. I was co-running an espresso cart business with the aforementioned ex. We'd been slinging coffee for almost five years and it was a great business but our breakup was bad -- my fault -- and our relationship was really strained. The afternoon shift was slower though and it gave me time to read, which took my mind off of my problems.
JC: Why were the books significant to you then?
KS: The Edisto books were like friends to me. In the first one, which was Powell's debut and earned him an American Book Award nomination, the main character (Simons Manigault) is an intelligent young teenager who is lost in the whims of his separated parents. The book is told from the boy's point of view and there are so many funny moments that come couched in heartbreaking scenarios, that you can't help but to root for him. He's unable to really control his situation but the thing that makes the book so good is that Powell gives the kid such a marvelous and fresh voice. Simons turns out to be our witness in a world full of adult debacles. The follow-up, which came out a dozen years after the first, presents Simons just out of college and therefore faced with more grown-up situations. Typical was a short story collection and if you're a short fiction fan, this should be pretty high on your list of should-reads. It's kind of like Barry Hannah, but a little warmer. You'll smile and shake your head while reading it. There was something wild but also very sweet about those books. Sometimes when you read something like "Edisto," you feel a sense of forgiveness.
JC: Have you re-read the books?
KS: I rarely re-read books. But I have looked at "Typical" a few times and like to show it to people. I like that title story. It's such an awesome beginning and he name-checks Candace Bergen, Mickey Gilley and Earl Campbell.
JC: Have you returned to that place?
KS: I stopped working at the espresso cart a few months after that summer ended and I started working at Powell's Books, where I've been since. I don't get to read on the job so much but I got a much larger pile to choose from if I do. Sometimes, when I drive out to that area of town, I do remember reading those books though, sitting outside on a stool, probably sipping on an iced mocha.
JC: Do you have plans to read any specific book before the summer is over?
KS: I'm always reading. I'm going in various directions this summer. I loved Alex Lemon's memoir, "Happy." I was on a Southern road trip with my fiance in July and I read Erskine Caldwell's dark fable, "Tobacco Road." Some poetry books by Beth Ann Fennelly, Mike Young, Evelyn Hampton and Michael Earl Craig. A sad novel by Michael Kimball called "How Much of Us There Was." Tony O'Neill's drug romp, "Sick City" And I'd like to finish Mary Gaitskill's story collection, "Don't Cry," and get started on "Mentor" by Tom Grimes before summer fades away. But, I should point out: Reading is definitely an all-year activity in Portland.
The summer of 2010 is almost over, but Labor Day weekend presents an opportunity for some last-gasp summer reading. Not sure where to begin? Check out the Los Angeles Times' list of this season's summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Kevin Sampsell. Credit: B. Frayn Masters