Online Edition: Fall 1999

Money Under the Table

Lewis Warsh

Trip Street Press ($10)

by Gil Ott

Collage is uniquely suited to twentieth-century European and American culture. Its operation mimics the basic perceptual function of gestalt, yet its insistence on the independence of its parts renders wholeness elusive. Where this phenomenon may have been previously regarded as a simple trick, like an optical illusion, it became a means of challenging notions of high art and culture in the hands of Dada artists like Max Ernst and Tristan Tzara during the societal madness that was the First World War.

That subsequent decades have canonized the Dadaists and their work has not dimmed the appeal of collage. Most recently it has surfaced as an essential ingredient in postmodernism. Its appeal--evident in the popularity of writers like William Burroughs and Kathy Acker--parallels the difficulty of making sense of a highly diverse and multivalent world.

I admit it's a stretch to regard Lewis Warsh's excellent book of seven stories, Money Under the Table, from the perspective of collage technique. Warsh is a poet and publisher who has been active in New York since the '60s, and has had an enormous impact in defining the collective aesthetic that speaks for that time and place. Frank O'Hara and Paul Blackburn are more accurately his antecedents.

What puts me in mind of collage is the fragmented, paragraph-based construction in certain of these stories--"Crack," "Pickup on Tenth Street," and the brilliant "The Acting Lesson" in particular. It is not the technique of collage that is notable here, but the collage-like effect that these stories have on a reader. In Warsh's hands, narrative offers a thoroughly convincing surface which defies analysis. The extremities of alienation and free will, the making of one's way in a post-moral, urban world, are what drive the stories of Money Under the Table.

Unlike true collage, these stories are not made up of preexisting materials. But Warsh proves himself to be an excellent observer, and nothing seems invented. He takes concise fragments of the lives of those who inhabit his stories and carefully attaches them to a whole, his whole, a fabric.

The effect is dizzying. These inhabitants (I hesitate to call them characters because they are so present and real in their confusion) find meaning in the present fragment only, and project that meaning to cover their entire lives. They are troubled and too eager to understand, and so go off on self-destructive tangents, which ultimately verify their failures.

Consider this paragraph from "Crack:"

I felt like I was part of everyone I knew. I felt I was divided into parts and that I wasn't a person who could say "I did this" and really mean that it was "me." The "me" seemed like someone else, or everyone else, and not only that: not only did I have to keep the faces of everyone I knew suspended in my mind at all times, but I also had to keep track of the lights of the city, the cars, and even the music floating out at me from an open window. I felt I was a composite of all these things; the absence of any one thing was the source of my sadness, my regret. If you asked about "me" I would say: look at the light on the side of this building. Look at this tree.

It is people--the inhabitants--that these stories are about. I may not recognize myself in all of them, but I do recognize their uncertainty. The world is an overwhelming onslaught of influences against which they try to position and make sense of themselves. Adults, they seem not to have outgrown their own adolescence. They are unaware of their clumsiness in the world, being too wrapped up in a more interior conceit.

Take, for instance, the narrator of the title story. Sex for him is still a new thing ("I'd been a non-virgin for two years and could still name all the people I had slept with"), yet he is on the verge of discovering the possibility of erotic detachment. That discovery yields a mixture of pride and shame which sends his thoughts back to his first erotic encounters, his father's shady business dealings, and his older sister's estrangement during her own sexual awakening:

She had lost her virginity a few months before, or so I learned from reading her diary. She thought it was wrong for my father to take bribes. What difference did it make since we lived like paupers anyway?

Warsh's direct style, which allows for both detail and generalization, is an ideal vehicle for portraying this moral ambiguity. At all times the people in these stories either feel that they are in control, or they fake it. They believe in the existence of a larger picture, even when they contradict themselves or act in self-destructive ways. Their actions, conditioned by rationalization and denial, are wholly understandable.

Naturally, our sense of control, as readers, is intact. Like the moviegoer at a horror film, we wouldn't go down that dark hallway. Warsh's mastery of the present psychological moment emerges in the careful balancing of narrative clarity and moral ambiguity. Each story unfolds, piece by piece, to suggest an inevitable, seamless whole.

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Fall 1999 Table of Contents