Late for Work
Houghton Mifflin, paper, $12
William Carlos Williams wrote on prescription pads. Wallace Stevens gave his poems to a secretary at Hartford Accident and Insurance, who typed them up. Poets work with what they’ve got—and in David Tucker’s case, that probably means a reporter’s notepad.
Tucker’s poetic debut, Late for Work, bears all the hallmarks of his newspapering life. (Currently, he’s an assistant managing editor at The Newark Star-Ledger.) Poems come bearing titles like “Morning Edition” or “A Book Review,” and sing the praises of that sweet spot between deadlines.
“Kingdom of Laziness” imagines a world with no tick-tock, where “yawns come loose / from your intentions.” And “Voice Mail” sounds like every newspaper employee’s fantasy: “You want to leave a message ... Leave one ... If he ever gets back, that is, and I’m not saying / that he will ever come back or that / he hasn’t been killed in a bar fight in Mexico / where for some years he has lived another life / filled with verse and drunken episodes.”
In the volume’s second section, Tucker eases back on the wordplay and adopts a more ruminative tone to evoke a father’s hometown loyalty, a mother’s mental illness. The quilt of his past is rich, but not stifled by nostalgia. Tucker never forgets this is art, not therapy. The collection’s finest poem, “The Brief Life of the Box,” turns into a beautiful homage to Stevens’ classic “Anecdote of the Jar,” but Tucker’s version pivots around a box that is made to hold the poet’s entire childhood.
This is very strong work—clearly Tucker has taken his time. Perhaps there was no deadline for this moonlight work, just pleasure. Occasionally, Tucker gets decadent, runs away with a metaphor—fashions something flashy and sets it afloat on a current of easy chuckles. Late for Work reveals he’s earned a right to do this—the chance, for once, to let it rip. To be not just the bearer of our morning bulletin, but the news itself.
Hell in a Handbasket: Dispatches From the Country Formerly Known as America
Tarcher, paper, $14.95
In an uncannily frank moment along the road to Iraq, former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card explained the war’s timing to a reporter as follows: “From a marketing standpoint, you don’t roll out a new product in August.” Say what one will about this approach to governing—let alone war—it offers comics a rich vein of material.
In fact, the Bush administration’s packaging of its policies is so elaborate and Strangelovean, a whole new type of comedy has developed around it—the fake news show. While Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have taken the lead on television, Tom Tomorrow has been leading the charge with his weekly comic strip, “This Modern World” (which you can read most weeks in the Alibi). Tomorrow has brought together his recent strips in a collection titled Hell in a Handbasket.
The characters of the strip are Bush, Cheney and occasionally the Democrats—none of whom is up to any good. Each week Tomorrow cleverly re-reports the most outlandish or alarming events, exploiting them for their comic potential. Occasionally, simply repeating the news is enough, like when the army expelled six Arabic translators because they were gay—at a time when the U.S. sorely needed their expertise.
Tomorrow knows there is only so much of this we can take before “outrage fatigue” sets in, so Hell in a Handbasket often veers toward outright silliness. In one panel, Saddam and Osama are characters in an action movie called Lethal Buddies, directed by George W. Bush. Another features Karl Rove suggesting the president man a mission to Mars, to which Bush replies: “Can I wear a space suit?”
High Lonesome (Stories: 1966-2006)
Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco, hardcover, $34.95
With each passing year, Joyce Carol Oates’ literary production more resembles a seismic event—a mountain range thrust up from the mysterious below. Nearly a hundred books in four decades, and she is nowhere near stopping. The latest peak in Oates’ ever-expanding range is High Lonesome: Stories 1966-2006. In a perfect world, this big, lavish collection would do for Oates what similar volumes did for Katherine Anne Porter and John Cheever. Both of these writers were known (and awarded) in their time as novelists—but they were really short-story scribes.
And so is Oates. The thin, quick air of the short story has always kept her themes most steadily aloft. Her pell-mell prose can speed toward devastating, bloody conclusions. Violence and loss have been her themes all along, and the new work collected in High Lonesome reflects that.
In Oates’ vision, American life is marked by a primal agoraphobia, something we attempt to tame and name by domesticating the landscape and calling it the suburbs. When that fails this instinct turns on the female body. Time and again in this book women are smacked, abused, threatened or bullied. In “Tryst,” a middle-age executive feeling the yaw of mortality plays fast and loose with a young girl’s heart. She responds by slitting her wrists in his luxurious bathroom, splattering blood on his wife’s towels.
The pleasures of smashing up everything and starting anew—or ending it all—is never far from view in Oates’ world. It’s a kind of death wish that bubbles in life’s mundane moments, giving the day-to-day a dangerous warble.