THE JUROR by GEORGE DAWES GREENEILEEN TABIOS Reviews
THE JUROR by George Dawes Green
(Warner Books, New York, 1995)
I decided to review this novel because George Dawes Green’s bio reveals him to be a poet (“a poet whose work has appeared in The Ontario Review, Carolina Quarterly and other literary publications”); Galatea Resurrects is open to engaging with all works by poets, not just poetry collections.
I don’t need to say much about the novel’s plot—it’s in that well-mined group of jury-tampering fiction—except to say what’s necessary: it’s an enjoyable read with its hang-loose wit. It has its own twists that are pleasant to the mind: perfect “beach reading,” as they say.
What made me wish to write about this book for Galatea Resurrects is how Green incorporated references to poets and poetry within the novel. Derek Walcott is tweaked here as a representative for poetry:
Slavko Czernyk hunkers down tonight in this old clawfoot bathtub because his tightass landlord still hasn’t turned on the heat and this is the only way to get warm. He lifts his foot out of the water and gets a toe-grip on the H knob. Twists it.
Treats the tub to a nice scalding pick-me-up.
He’s chewing a Nicorette and smoking a Lucky Strike at the same time. A cupful of Jim Beam (with a drop of honey) rests on the tub sill. He’s holding a book above the waterline. The book is called The Essential Derek Walcott. He owns this book because once a woman told him that Derek Walcott was the greatest poet ever, oh my god. He was in love with this woman. He still is. So he keeps the book at all times in this bathroom across from his office, and whenever he takes a crap or a bath he opens The Essential Derek Walcott and makes a stab at civilizing himself.
He glares at a poem.
The poem taunts him.
The poem says things like
…and read until the lamplit page revolves
to a white stasis whose detachment shines
like a propeller’s rainbowed radiance.
Circling like us, no comfort for their loves!...
He squints. He tries that part again. He still doesn’t get it. He turns the book upside down and reads:
[same excerpt as above except the words are upside down]
This is never going to work. He takes a long pull from the Jim Beam, a long pull from the Lucky, and turns the page.
In his office across the hall, the phone rings.
Who have we got here? He wonders. Who’d be calling the Czernyk Detective Agency at this hour?
Probably Grassman Security. They’re on a stakeout and no relief and Slavko, could you please hustle your ass down here? So you can make eight bucks an hour sitting with Bill Farmer in a colder-than-shit Mercury Zephyr and keep tabs on a murky motel door across a murky street and listen all night to Bill Farmer’s two-part encore-and-fart harmony, OK, Slavko?
All the god damn livelong night, how about that, Slavko?
Thanks but I’d rather stay here and read, read until the lamplit page revolves to a white stasis whose detachment shines like a propeller’s rainbowed radiance, you know what I mean?
All perfectly amusing. Later in the story, the detective Slavo Czernyk attempts his own poem, mirroring at this point a plot line where Slavo has fallen in love with a new woman:
Slavo is sitting on the floor of his office at three in the afternoon. He’s writing a poem, which is called “It Doth Suck,” and though it’s his first poem it’s a goddamn good poem. He reads over what he’s got. He reaches to his left for the bottle of Jim Beam. He doesn’t look because that would involve turning his head to the left and it hurts too much to turn his head to the left. Or ot the right, for that matter. So he reaches without looking, and puts his hand into a quart takeout container from Luk Dhow. Last night’s supper. His hand comes back wearing the quart container like a glove. Presently he figures out that it’s not a glove. He shakes it off him.
He forces himself to turn his head. Finds the bourbon and gives it a yank.
While licking his hand he rereads his poem:
IT DOTH SUCK
All pretty sucky? What do you say?
Fuckhead, hey fuckbrain, cat got your tongue?
It genuine sucks.
What did you think, it was going to get better?
Be glad to answer that, but I can’t because of
The BEEP BEEP BEEP
From that semi outside on Main Street..
It’s backing up!!
For shit’s sake,
In traffic, everybody’s pissed. BEEP BEEP BEEP,
It says, so loud I can’t think.
It’s the National Anthem
Of my life. God it sucks. Okay? And this here,
This is my poem. Juliet, I had wanted to not send
It to you, but now I’ve got a new girl
To not send it to.
Is there a minimum number of poems, he wonders, to qualify for the Nobel Prize? Wouldn’t just one be enough if it was a real corker?
All still perfectly amusing. And, by the way, if Derek Walcott inspires a reader to write a poem (no matter how sucky), that’s a compliment to Mr. Walcott, yah?
There’s another scene later in the story where the bad guy stalks one of his victims at a poetry reading. This is all to say, Green does a good job integrating poetry-related scenes into this genre crime story. Good enough to do the job.
But Green also used an interest in Taoism to help develop one of the characters. And I can't help but compare the integration of poetry and Taoism--both topics that need not have been chosen to flesh out the novel’s primary crime plot line (it's a genre novel and Green probably could have used other interests like baseball or Marxism or antiques or wine(!) in developing his story). And in comparing how he dealt with Taoism and poetry, I think Green did a better job with Taoism--specifically in terms of seamlessness. The references to Lao Tzu’s teachings seem more integrated into the story. On the other hand, the references to poetry maintain a sense of arbitrariness to their existence within the novel (even though such arbitrariness doesn’t get in the way of the enjoyable read).
One could argue that Green simply did a better job on using Taoism for character development. But what I’m considering about the inescapable artifice evoked by the poetry references is how the artificiality might mirror the current role of poetry in mass culture: that Poetry is something separate, an Other, from everyday life.
I doubt that this result was part of Green’s intention. But it’s a result that elevates the novel beyond its genre of criminal fiction, even as, for a poet like me, it’s a result that, um, kind of depresses.
Eileen Tabios HEARTS wine, dogs and Thou. She can't do anything but shrug over the loudness of her Silences...