Quiet Money by Robert McDowell (Holt: $9.95, paperback; 68 pp.)

In this his first book, Robert McDowell writes narrative poems that entertain, amuse and enrich. His characters are assorted middle-class failures, dismayed suburbanites who are often enamored of risk and violence. "It's good to feel the edge," says the bootlegger-aviator of the title poem as he strokes a straight razor. Most of McDowell's suburbanites have lost that "edge," the "need for something to run up against." They fear living their lives as lower-case letters among capitals (see "The Backward Strut"). Another of McDowell's images for these displaced selves is the cordless telephone.

In "The Disconnected Party," a speaker returns from 20 years in prison, sent up for viciously attacking the boss who fired him. Seeking contacts, he phones a former friend. When he can't get through, he breaks into his friend's suburban house, sees a stained, drab mess. In the study, he grabs a cordless phone, dials, but gets no signal. When a kitchen phone rings, he dashes for it but is too late--an answering machine is already whirring. Parts of our lives once misplaced can't be called back.

In "The Malady Lingers On," Bill Davis is always reassured evenings when he returns home and sees "Cat" in the window; he knows he's reached the right suburban home. Elsewhere, Tina, as lonely as he, hungers for him. Trying to locate him, she dials all the Davises in the phone book. Before she can reach him, however, Bill tries to hang himself. In "The Librarian After Hours," a librarian avoids suicide by developing her fantasies. When a real beekeeper and an architect fail to satisfy her, she rushes to a fantasized pioneer who eats opossums raw. She's now a frontier wife in a covered wagon, an image she relates to her librarianship: She's an "outpost," "the chair with an ear,/the cook and comforter on desolation's porch."

Despite the apparent grimness, "Quiet Money" has humor. And McDowell never condescends toward his losers. He sees all of us (and himself) waffling about in the same comic-tragic mix. When the friend of a man destroys his own face by showing off with a Bic lighter ("a joke blows up"), the speaker gains self-esteem, dreams of marriage on the loading dock where he works, and acts to arrange an affair with the friend's wife. In "Coed Day at the Spa," a male works out with Amazonian women at a heavy-duty health spa. The women regard him as just "one more Jupiter" with a minuscule organ. One awesome lady (she bench presses 20 reps. at 225) invites/commands our hero to lift with her. Subservient, he "lies down like a victim, overmatched."

In the amazing "The Origin of Fear," there seems to be a tale within a tale: A painter, hired by the City of Los Angeles to paint grisly freeway murals of wrecks and mayhem as a means of reducing accidents, becomes a TV evangelist so as to reach more and more people with his "message." The protagonist, driving past the murals, recalls his unpleasant childhood and thinks of "Death hills, Death sun,/Then, miracle of miracles, Death/in images he cannot stand to look at." He returns home, settles in front of the TV, tunes in the evangelist, and feels incredible death-fear.

Fear is a recurring theme: We are "flashlights that tire and don't shine so good."

A final word about McDowell's style: It's very plain, almost prosy, with some lines suitable for soap operas and comic strips. Yet, a blank-verse lyrical magic does occur, as does a fine originality: "Betty's breathing is a motor in good repair"; She "hammers one hard kiss across his chapped lips"; an injured leg "is a leg of broken glass"; and "Sweat was backing up between his toes." McDowell is a rare new poet.

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