Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"The Names" by Joe Wilkins

Someone is in a bar, having a long neck Budweiser as they look across the dark room, past the floating dust particles highlighted from glaring light from the street, talking past the person they're talking to, summarizing the state of the economy, the community, their own slice of a wretched existence, and conclude with what is they're willing to settle for. "It is no good to grow up hating the rich" warns B.H.Fairchild, to which our monologist, a persona who had read this quote somewhere and found a space in a conversation he was having to both cite the reading and to respond , responds thusly to an undifferentiated Pete, a name that in the course of this story never takes on a personality. He might as well be a mirror for this beer soaked gripes to spoken to:

Why not hate the rich? It's easy,
and some days easy's what I need.

This is speech from a Larry McMurtry novel or one of those films where a minor character suddenly becomes very chatty in a key scene and finds an articulate voice and give us the complications of his life and world view in a writer's attempt to give him more complexity, and as a speech it might work fine given the context and narrative conventions fiction or a movie would allow. It might not seem so, let us say, incredible and contrived. It's a splendid thing when a piece composed of a character's voice works, with the precarious balance between natural , loose cadences and digressive tendencies and a writer's control of the idea , in getting it across for an effect without showing his hand, but Joe Wilkens ' tone here is Hollywood production.

There is one thing for someone in theater to go off on a soliloquy in the presence of another actor , since good stage writing and direction can effectively imply that we've entered the character's more resonant thinking for a few beats; the lights come up again, the other actor recites his line, and the plot continues apace. We have no such context in "The Names".

The other person this narrator is assumed to be talking to is insufficiently established , and the notion that these are the private considerations doesn't convince me either, since this poem strains between being a rambling string of anecdotes and a polemic. One can’t imagine this kind of conversation happening in a bar where the working poor gather ; Pete, if he were a kindred spirit in this narrator’s peer group, would competing for the spotlight himself with a competing monologue, another list of complaints and ready lines. Even in commiseration there is competition, a competition to out bottom and out –bad luck the guy you’re sitting next to. But here, the fix is in, and this is what ruins the fidelity to describing experience that is intractably tragic.The thoughts are too complete, too polished. Someone with this kind of insight, or at least this ability to artfully phrase his details, ought to be able to do better than wallow in his own disappointment:

This country I call home is, like yours,
lost, and my people too are lost, like me,

so let me hate with them, let me sit up at the bar,
and curse the banker, the goddamn-silly-designer chaps
the new boss man from back east wears,
let me speak the names of the dead and get righteous,
for at least one more round.

The writing shows, the urge to totalize a context. Wilkens doesn’t show the moment as much as gives it shape with conventional writerly moves.Barroom bathos, a country singer's stoicism, a poem that seems more like something emerging from Central Casting than coming across as something made from things that one might actually have heard or had seen. Over rehearsed is the phrase for this, with the small town details arranged in such a circuitous way that they unintentionally expose what "The Names" actually is, a tall tale to flesh out Wilken's sarcastic reversal of Fairchild's one-sentence quote. It's a lot of work for so little effect.