‘The Wherewithal’ explores memory versus chronology

BOOK REVIEW

LOS ANGELES TIMESFebruary 16, 2014 

  • THE WHEREWITHAL

    by Philip Schultz; W.W. Norton ($25.95)

Philip Schultz’s “The Wherewithal” is a story 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.”

In Henryk’s 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.

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