Scottish poet Robertson serves up an epic poem of homelessness, dislocation, and inequality—set not today, though it could have been, but instead in the years after World War II.
Walker: It’s a good name for the protagonist, who “walks. That is his name and nature.” A Canadian washed up on the shores of Manhattan, he walks among ghosts, among anonymous people who wanted simply to be anonymous, “not swallowed whole, not to disappear,“ though that is what the city does to people. Walker is trying to shake off his wartime experiences, having landed at Normandy on D-Day and fought his way far inland; he spends his days in taprooms, his nights waiting watchfully for nightmares. A year passes, then another, and he makes his way west to Los Angeles, his fortunes not having improved much; as a fellow traveler says to him, meaningfully, “Just look at us now: two heroes in a hostel on Skid Row.” Walker finally pulls out of it in a Los Angeles whose pulse is that of movies such as The Naked City and The Big Clock; Robertson’s skillful weaving of cinematic history into a storyline that embraces hard-boiled journalism, the paranoia of the McCarthy era, and a kind of reflexive if sometimes-ironic nationalism that has never disappeared (“this here is the City of the Angels, Tinseltown, sit-yoo-ated / in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”) makes for juxtapositions that are sometimes unexpected but just right. Walker finally lands a job as a reporter, but, as Robertson makes clear, that only serves to accelerate his search among the hard-bitten, the hard-drinking, and the homeless for some missing part of himself, all the while against the hallucinatory backdrop of movies like Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper and tableaux like a rotting, beached humpback whale, “one pectoral fin stretched up like a sail."
Robertson’s novel in verse joins a tradition that includes Louis Zukofsky, Edgar Lee Masters, and Ed Sanders, and it doesn’t suffer by comparison.