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 25-year-old Henryk Stanislaw Wyrzkowski, whose mother sheltered seven Jews in a hole she dug in the floor of her Jedwabne barn.
Now, 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 tells us, "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, and yet, that murder didn't occur until October 1969.
So what is going on? Schultz offers a clue (a cryptogram, perhaps, like those the Zodiac sent to San Francisco area newspapers) 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 take 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 a 2008 Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote a brief, pointed memoir, "My Dyslexia," which highlights, in the most personal terms, the tenuous relationship of language to the inner life.
Something similar is at work in "The Wherewithal," with its attention to what we might call emotional, or historical, dyslexia, the back and forth from Poland to California, from Henryk's mother's turmoil to his own. Lonely, disassociated, Henryk is a prisoner of memory, even (or especially) when the memories don't belong to him. "Her blue eyes focused inward," he reflects, "as if no longer interested in the outside,/ as if having forgotten that their purpose/ was to recognize/ and name/ and memorialize/ not erase."
The point is that in his mother's (and, by extension, his) disorientation, history grows displaced. In some sense, that describes the 1960s, portrayed here as a tangle of confusions, love and war and drugs and violence all overlapping until we're unsure what any of it means.
Late in the book, Henryk participates in a protest at the naval depot from which napalm is shipped to Vietnam. "Asked … why I'm here," he confides, "I say, 'To prove my insanity and feel less futile.'/ What I don't say is: having seen hell/ many of the soldiers I taught/ wanted to but didn't know how to look away./ … I too wanted to look away/ be shaken loose."
If this sounds like a paradox, that's the whole idea, since in being shaken loose, we cannot help but lose ourselves. It happens to Henryk, with his mismatched memories, his chronology that doesn't quite make sense. He may be holding out until his 26th birthday, when he will no longer be draft-eligible, but he is also suspended between Poland and the Zodiac, adrift in a universe where history itself has shaken loose. "How ordinary it became," he thinks, considering the death camps. "How routine. Worst in spring/ when to the trees life returns,/ while in their souls winter remains."
What Schultz is getting at is not just the banality of evil (to steal a phrase from 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.
"Is empathy therefore an illusion?" he wonders. "Is there no grief but our own? Potentially are we all monsters?" Such questions permeate the book. As for an answer, the closest we get may be in this comment from a shell-shocked soldier: "Okay, man, I know, we're all/ just poor sick animals, it's in our nature,/ not really our fault …"
Were "The Wherewithal" a traditional novel, that might be a difficult move to pull off. By casting his narrative in verse, however, Schultz opens the book to symbol, to metaphor and myth. We are aware on every line of the constructedness of the story, that what we are reading is not a representation of reality but something more allusive — a parable, as it were.
Certainly, it echoes Dante, who in "Inferno" wrote about another lost soul and his journey through the underworld. But more to the point, "The Wherewithal" is about "[t]he 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.
A Novel in Verse
W.W. Norton: 182 pp., $25.95