Pulitzer winner in prize form

By Stoddard Martin, May 9, 2014

The Wherewithal, by Philip Schultz, W. W. Norton, £16.99

Traditionally, poetry has given order to the wayward word. Rhyme, metre, regularity of stanza — all give shape to a story or lyrical idea. Prose might perambulate — its paragraphs of different sizes, its dialogue recording language as spoken, not the stuff of incantation.

The free verse revolution of the early 20th century changed this to such a degree that poetry, for (and by) some, came to seem little more than prose broken up into lines and presented on a page. Writers seemed to be intent on shattering the boundaries.

This process began with the modernists and was taken up in the 1950s by the Beats, notably Allen Ginsberg. His Howl rode the crest of a wave of poem as madly-inspired, Joycean description — a surge of images meant to evoke a new (dis)order via its vast, opening-out inclusivity. Within a decade, his incantions had spread the revolution to pop music and Bob Dylan was singing Desolation Row. Philip Schultz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetic prose (or prose poetics) follows this path. The Wherewithal is a remarkable instance of it.

In content, Schultz’s text oscillates between the Jebwabne massacre of 1941 and the San Francisco “New Age” of 1968. His protagonist, Henryk Wyrzkowski, was born in the Polish village but now lives in the “city of love”. In six chapters, each in sixteen sections, he recounts his progress from being on public assistance to becoming clerk of the closed files of the welfare department to driving a taxi to teaching spelling to dazed returnees from Vietnam to being drafted himself, protesting and going on the run.

The circus that was hippy Haight-Ashbury, Oakland of the Black Panthers, LSD trippers in Berkeley, and so on, is conjured in vivid, gaudy authenticity. But what is exceptional is the context into which it is woven.
The infamous Zodiac killer, who roamed the Bay Area of those days, introduces a note of “beyond good and evil”, leading Wyrzkowski’s thoughts back towards the rationale, if one can call it that, which led his compatriot Poles on a notorious June morning to round up and murder 800 Jewish neighbours.

His mother’s diaries provide another avenue into this horror: she hid half-a-dozen escapees in a hole beneath her kitchen while watching her fellow Catholics rampage. A third horror, personalising Henryk’s meditations, is the memory of his own fatal shooting of a survivor’s son, his sidekick, as a teenage émigré in Chicago. The shooting was part of a William Tell game, such as Ginsberg’s fellow-Beat William Burroughs played with his wife. Unlike Burroughs, Henryk Wyrzkowski can never quite get beyond it.

Schultz’s book is full of magnificent language and trenchant philosophical juxtapositions, some owed to Wittgenstein, from whom comes the title. Imagery recalls Piranesi, selections from whose Invenzioni Capric de Carceri open each chapter.

Heir to the Beats, Schultz achieves greater historical reach, without sacrificing their cherished immediacy. Though compulsive to read and exploding with chaos, his is as intricate a construction as a fugue. This astounding achievement deserves to win its author further prizes.

Stoddard Martin is a writer and publisher

Last updated: 5:20pm, May 9 2014