The Wherewithal by Philip Schultz, book review: A horrifying story of 'the other' US

 

Modern history: residents at a food bank in New York
Modern history: residents at a food bank in New York

The narrator of The Wherewithal, Philip Schultz's "novel in verse", is Henryk Wyrzykowski, whose mother emigrated to the United States after 1945.

After a period of near-destitution, Henryk is working in the deep basement of the San Francisco Public Aid office, in the Department of Closed Files, where rejected financial appeals from the poor and desperate go to be ignored. He himself is in hiding, having changed one letter of his name in order to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War. It is 1968.

In his underground retreat Henryk thinks about history: his own and that of the Holocaust, and in particular that of his Polish mother, who hid Jewish fugitives from the villagers of her native Jedwabne – Catholics who in 1941 needed little encouragement from the Germans to slaughter their long-time Jewish neighbours in a spirit of self-righteous festivity. Henryk himself is tainted by a killing and has become an outcast, both perpetrator and victim. In the streets above, as hippiedom reaches its incoherent climax, tankers of napalm arrive at a nearby harbour to be shipped out to Vietnam.

This is history as a nightmare from which no one awakes. As far as Henryk can see the slaughter continues, and the oddments of his own present life tend to enforce this sense by their lack of texture and consequence – for example his liaison with the part-time porn actress who takes up with him since his predecessor is no longer to hand. The predecessor, Swigge, was a philosopher of sorts, which leaves Henryk struggling to catch up and find a place of his own in the (under)world.

When he is beaten up at an anti-war protest, one of the attackers, described as "the blond thug", remarks: "Maybe you learned something…" That man is a wolf to man? That the world is actually like Piranesi's "Imaginary Prisons", which illustrate this text? That the human race is a death cult? The passage recalls E.E.Cummings's 'ygUDuh', where an earlier thug declares: 'dem /gud /am /lidl yelluh bas / tuds weer goin / duhSIVILEYEzum'.

Schultz's perspective is in some respects unfashionable (though that hardly matters). America as Amerika, as a Fascism of its own, full of loathing for the poor who mirror and expose it – this is a dissenting notion that has been dying away from public discourse since the 1960s in favour of limited forms of meliorism which tend to enforce the injustice of things.

Is the reason the richest nation in the world does not finally wish to abolish poverty among its citizens is that it is necessary to the project for some to be powerless and despicable, as a more general warning? Henryk comes close to a currently near-unthinkable aspiration to democratic Socialism – but then has no faith in administration. All that remains, then, is testimony, a passing on of the truth.

The Wherewithal is a horrifying and eloquent book. To call it "a novel in verse" begs the question, though. The writing is economical, propulsive, richly allusive to literature and philosophy, and studded with memorable phrases, but the line-breaks are aids to performance, lacking the sense of musical pressure and formal necessity that marks poetry. Which is fine, but call it by its name.

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