Poet Kleinzahler (Green Sees Things in Waves, 1998, etc.) adeptly and frankly chronicles episodes from a strange, unenviable life.
When the author was seven and his brother called him obnoxious, he writes, “I resolved to become a man of letters. If there were words as punishing as this, I wanted my quiver to be full of them.” It is. Kleinzahler comes out of his corner at the reader like a veteran boxer: First there will be some jazzy entertainment and fancy stepping, then he’ll send you a line that stings with nose-bleeding accuracy. We start with his childhood in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He was an unexpected baby—a little too much to drink and “mother became pregnant with me, years after she’d convinced herself she’d beaten that particular rap”—with a sister who lived in the attic, a brother given to mayhem, and parents who would rather be in another room. His neighbors were Murder Inc.’s CEO Albert Anastasia and the Palisades Amusement Park. His saviors were his dog and his brother, who figures in a final chapter that hits like a broadside. “He was born wild, born troubled,” concludes the poet. “He wasn’t designed for the long haul; not everyone is.” Kleinzahler is good with unsettling, epigrammatic flashes, but he can also be mellow, pursuing the syntax of place on a bus ride from San Diego to El Cajon in a piece that proclaims “flânerie, that's my thing,” or capturing his favorite bar, a depressing, cavelike, unfriendly joint called Persian Aub Zam Zam, in a profile that bears comparison with the best of Joseph Mitchell. Drinking provides the autobiographical segue to a thorough mugging of the movie Leaving Las Vegas, and it might also explain his penchant for fistfights and comments like “what really drew me to Melodia . . . was her taste for being tied up and sodomized, all the while muttering prayers in Latin.”
High and low, crushing and comic, indelible as India ink.