PADGETT POWELL'S SHORT story "Trick or Treat" opens with a bored Southern housewife reciting, "It loves me, it loves me not, I love it, I love it not?" Mrs. Hollingsworth, it turns out, is referring to the South itself: to lemonade in the shade, to ennui, to "automotive mechanical intelligence in inverse proportion to dental health." And that question of regional affection permeates Powell's writing (which first gained attention in the well-received coming-of-age novel, Edisto): In his newest collection, Aliens of Affection, the Florida-born writer repeatedly asks it of both his protagonists and himself.
Powell mocks the South and its inhabitants with a prose that is sly, blunt, and occasionally cruel ("Floyd is a large soft fellow who somehow is not regarded as fat, or quite grown, which is why, probably, at 37, people do not kill him."). But Aliens is also animated by a heat-calmed wonder of the Mason-Dixon landscape, a wonder expressed through characters inclined to occasional flashes of brilliance.
Take a typically Powellian protagonist like Wayne, a macho city bumpkin with a streak of incongruous whimsy. He's the kind of hick who makes up fake song titles like "The Navy is a Desert but Nothing Like This" and imagines himself robbing a bank armed with bad Spanish and a bayonet: "Cabrónes! Tú probablamente anticipare un hombre with pistole. Es un blood groove!" Wayne, Mrs. Hollingsworth, and Powell's other aliens absentmindedly pick at their inarticulate yearnings in between cases of beer or glasses of lemonade: Wayne dreams of moving to Italy; Mrs. Hollingsworth seduces a precocious 12-year-old out of boredom.
The mentally stunted Rod goes one better, resolving to remake himself into a gentlemanly bad-ass named Scarliotti--never mind his drooling desperation, his piss-stained pants, or the fact that his best pick-up line is "I would dog to dog you." Still, one girl is charmed by his ineptitude, and as they lie in bed after sex, Scarliotti launches into a dizzying, two-page rant on dogs, Fruit of the Loom underwear, and J.E.B. Stuart. It's a soliloquy with hints of revelation and accidental poetry, creating an abiding sympathy for its post-coital speaker; in a sense, it also settles Powell's question of loving the South (or loving it not) firmly in the affirmative. As illustrated in these refreshingly vulgar, deeply humane stories, Powell's South is a bit like Scarliotti: clumsy, coarse, and possibly hopeless, but still noble in spite of itself.