by Philip Schultz
Philip Schultz's The Wherewithal is a book in which time has come undone. Taking place in San Francisco in 1968, it also reaches back to the Holocaust - specifically, the Jedwabne pogrom of July 1941, when Polish civilians killed more than 300 Jews. The link is Henryk Stanislaw Wyrzkowski, whose mother sheltered seven Jews in a hole she dug in the floor of her Jedwabne barn.
Now, the 25-year-old Henryk has retreated to his own subterranean hiding place, trying to dodge the Vietnam draft by working as a clerk in a basement office, filing public assistance claims. What drives both stories is a sense of human misery, whether of the acute or chronic sort. "Hiding is existing," Henryk says, "in a constant state of alarm,/remaining undiscovered and inferior."
Here's where it gets interesting: Henryk is translating his mother's Jedwabne diary, a document created in her end-of-life dementia, which confuses "things she didn't see/but overheard and was later told,/with things she saw firsthand".
The same is true of Henryk, who asserts he was a young child during Jedwabne, although the chronology doesn't bear him out. He also recalls driving a cab in San Francisco on the night the Zodiac killer targeted a cabbie - but that murder didn't occur until October 1969.
So what is going on? Schultz offers a clue at the very end of the book: "In her delirium," Henryk explains, referring to his mother, "and in mine, scenes unfold/with the force of a living chronicle." What he's suggesting, then, is that The Wherewithal is narrative as fever dream, chopped up, fragmented and stitched back together, less about realism than allegory.
In that regard, it's only fitting that it takes the form of a long poem, "a novel in verse", since its logic is less the logic of fiction than of poetry. "Indeed," Schultz writes, "we're in pursuit of knowledge,/and happiness, a carnival on the cusp/of a funeral, a magnificent medley/of vanities."
Schultz is an accomplished poet; his sixth collection, Failure, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.
What Schultz is getting at is not just the banality of evil (to steal a phrase from political philosopher Hannah Arendt), but also, in the broadest sense, complicity. He makes that explicit in the figure of Henryk, who as a teenager accidentally shot and killed a friend.
The Wherewithal is about "the unspeakable things we do,/the vicious lies we tell ourselves and others,/the innocence we beat to death/with and without shame". The inferno, in other words, does not exist outside of us: like time and memory and meaning, it is ours to create.