A Review of “Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners: New York Stories” by Ken Wohlrob

Spencer Dew

Ken Wohlrob shares a certain ideal with Henry Miller, a commitment to “the streets” as that which stands in opposition to “literature.” As laid out at the start of Black Spring, Miller believed that “In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them.”

“What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature,” Miller insisted, and while much could be said about this understanding of the world (and of art, which, to be authentic, must represent a return to the “wild”—to “childhood” in a sense Miller adapts from Rimbaud), suffice it to say that Wohlrob, in this collection of stories set in and otherwise about the streets and public spaces of New York City, has a similar allergy to that which is “false, derived.” This is not to say that these pages crackle with the vigor and originality of Henry Miller—they do not. But the pieces in Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners: New York Stories, rely on a dichotomy between authentic and fake, between feeling and pose.

Consider the giant tampon, a piece of installation art, its string kicked around or trampled by gallery visitors. This isn’t the sort of art that finds valorization in these city stories. Rather, Wohlrob channels the voices and tastes of various New Yorkers—the old Italian man searching for the right variety of Tums at a CVS store, the woman dancing at a strip club to put away some money for her daughter—who are resolutely of the street as Miller meant that phrase.

Consider Ramón, who learned to paint from his father, sitting on a milk crate, working on “flattened cardboard boxes from behind the bodegas.” The two would travel from Brooklyn in to the Met, admiring certain paintings, like Klimt’s Mada… which “was Ramón’s first girlfriend. Pale, surly, and beautiful,” though “He could never pinpoint what exactly drew him to her. There was a mystery, a presence, or a something.” Ramón, however, is a painter of the streets. His tastes run toward Otto Dix, but he’s trapped in a world where galleries feature portraits of cartoon characters or “a series dedicated to photographs of feet … lascivious scenes inspired by Balzac’s Droll Stories with cutouts from Disney coloring books,” etc. He misses the old neighborhood and its wild reality, its streetness, and he tries to capture something of that in his own painting, one of which ends up hanging in a men’s room , or, as Miller and Ramón would rightly insist on calling it, a toilet. Irony and theory are not interests of Ramón’s. “Where is the goddamn mystery??!! Where’s your passion??!!” he asks of the works of contemporaries. Yet there is indeed a passion, and a mystery, in his work ending up there amid the sounds of defecation, the automatic flushing, the human filth and mechanical sterilization.

The toilet, as juncture between the human and its denial, is, in fact, the perfect place for art. The toilet is practically “the street” (Miller, in Black Spring, sings the praises, at length, of Parisian-style outdoor urinals). Likewise, out in an alley, among the garbage cans, two denizens of this book argue over Kandinsky and Joan Miro, a spat cleared up only by another man screaming the name Max Ernst from his open window. Yes, this is the street: “scraggly men, in soiled t-shirts, the necks wide and stretched so their chests could be seen, tattered sport coats with rips in the material, and pants that once had color but now only had grime, circled one another, hands held out like claws, crouched down in wrestling stances.” “Kandinsky asshole!” screams one. “Joan Miro fuckhead!” comes the retort.

The riddle of Miller’s stance, of course, is how to make “literature” out of that which resolutely rejects being “literature”—how, in short, to weave written art out of material that resists any whiff of being “false, derived.” Or, to phrase it another way: How do you consistently churn out such stuff without becoming a caricature, a cheap copy of your own better moments? Urine and cabbage don’t make a story more real, more authentic. Hanging a picture in a toilet doesn’t make it more of a comment on or scream against the slow decay of human existence.

Wohlrob attempts to counter this risk with details. Fading sunlight makes “the old couch look even more battered and bruised, silver duct tape glowing against the pale, worn brown leather. Off in the distance, cars ran over potholes and divots as they raced down the BQE.” Here are the citizens of Washington Heights one afternoon:

Dominican crisscrossing Cuban, Puerto Rican walking around Irish, hipsters scooting past doctors and nurses from Columbia University Medical Center. They headed towards the Puerto Rican restaurant with the chickens hanging in the window, the drippings glistening on the crisp, dark skin. Or to the Gristedes to pick up cabbage, rice, and a liter of Pepsi. Or into the Dominican bodega to buy calling cards with names such as “Oro Solido,” “Knockout,” and “100% Platano NY.” Or just to get home, the final stretch in a return to peace and quiet, or at least enough peace and quiet that could be had on humid summer night when everyone sat on the front stoop, listening to the local Reggaeton station, yelling up and down the block, and playing dominos.

Then there is the psychological, the emotional element, which, for Wohlrob, is frequently one of desperation. A husband smells his wife’s cancer on her vomit, her breath. A scam is coined to pay for medical bills, but here’s the view inside the scammer’s mind, a stab at a vernacular of suffering—of confusion and terror and pain:

They walked down the hallway. Room numbers rolled past. 4G05. 4G06. On the other side: 4E18. 4E15. Nurses and doctors throwing out measurements: 10ccs of this, 12 milligrams of the other, two doses of blankblankblankamine. The dials of the blood pressure cuffs: 120, 140, 160, 180. The LCD readouts of electronic thermometers: 105, 102, 98. The Sanskrit of physician writing followed by an endless stream of numbers in columns. More room numbers. 4G01. 4E02. Then a calendar with days marked, meetings listed with times.  November 20th, 2:00, admin meeting. A clock on the wall. 8:05 pm.

These stories don’t always succeed. There are characters that are hard to care about, the music of the street—particularly how people talk—is alluded to rather than represented, and there are false notes, choreographed comparisons, images that smack of the derived. But in the end there is an ample dose, too, of the “accident and incident, drama, movement” that Miller argued was the inheritance of being born and raised in the streets.

Official Ken Wohlrob Web Site

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