Relentless pessimism about the state of the nation infuses Sexton’s (Paper Moon, 2013) accomplished poetry and short fiction about down-and-out drifters and starving artists.
Though also a surrealist painter, Sexton proves adept at delineating character portraits through short fiction and verse. In this mixed-genre collection, most poems and short stories are only a page or two. The title piece, about hard life and untimely death in the ghetto, introduces the book’s dark atmosphere: “Being and begetting, struggling and / enduring…as gunfire crackles and sirens wail / and her fate is sealed with coffin nails.” Sexton’s characters—Nowhere Men as much as Everymen—are war veterans, hobos, sex workers, and blue-collar employees facing job losses and financial ruin. His settings are urban wastelands, often Chicago or Detroit. For instance, in “The Penworn Papers,” one of a handful of longer stories, an impoverished artist recalls his degenerate life as he moves between a freight-yard shack and a laundromat. Reversals of fortune go both ways: in “The Gift,” a Jewish satire redolent of Shalom Auslander, a young man reverts to emptiness in his old age, while “The Pawnshop” awards the child of Holocaust survivors millions of dollars to give away in scholarships. The palette is Edward Hopper’s, the ironic tone O. Henry’s. Black humor appears in nursery-rhyme refrains (in “Jack in a Box”) and sarcastic snarls, in “Valentine Rhyme”: “Another dandy day in the good / ole USA.” Indeed, Sexton questions American supremacy and the certainty that “in the USA, the bad guys lose, truth wills out, the righteous win.” In “Mount Money,” he undermines America’s self-identification with Switzerland’s rich neutrality by exposing an essential lack of social conscience: “I guess we’re a lot like the Swiss. / Except, of course, for the social programs / they have to take care of their citizens / from cradle to grave, which goes against / our grain.” “Our Town” playfully affirms Thornton Wilder’s morbid vision through gloomy imagery. The poems—rich with alliteration, internal rhymes, assonance, and puns—slightly outclass the stories here. They have broader application, universalizing human depravity and the daily fight for survival in an age of austerity.
The bleakness may be hard to take, but Sexton’s talent for social commentary and character sketching marks him as—in a title he gives a character in “Chop Suey”—“the Modigliani of the Mean Streets.”