David Wagoner Wagoner, David (Vol. 3)

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Wagoner, David (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wagoner, David 1926–

Wagoner is a respected American poet and novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Although David Wagoner is widely recognized as a poet, his novels are oddly unacclaimed. His four full-length novels, The Man in the Middle (1953), Money Money Money (1954), Rock (1958), and The Escape Artist (1965), and his novella, "The Spinning Ladies" (1962), achieve a powerful and highly original perspective on modern American culture and constitute a persuasive case for judging Wagoner as one of the most gifted novelists of the past fifteen years.

Wagoner's vision is essentially tragicomic; although his novels seem to resemble those of the so-called "black humorists," his work is generally less mordant and more lyrical in feeling, containing satirical elements but not basically satirical in effect. The novels focus on lonely destinies rather than general social conditions, individuals rather than social types, making an indictment of society secondary to a fascination with the doom of the individual in that society.

A marked pattern in Wagoner's work is a fascination with certain basic themes. The Man in the Middle, Money Money Money, and The Escape Artist all follow one fairly simple pattern with the obstinacy of myths or fairy tales. Rock and "The Spinning Ladies" are in some ways different, but they complement Wagoner's basic ideas. The pattern Wagoner establishes can be described variously as: (1) a modern myth or apologue concerning the individual in an urban industrial society, (2) a description of specific social conditions in a specific region, or (3) a pattern of rhetoric (and a "plot") within the norms of the modern novel.

In simple terms, Wagoner's basic story is this: an innocent man, in some way disabled or incomplete and out of touch with his society, is involved unwillingly or accidentally with corruption (in the form of organized crime); he is pursued relentlessly by evil forces, becomes himself corrupt (falls from "ethical grace") and is therefore damaged or destroyed….

Technically, gwagoner has borrowed the rhetoric and paraphernalia of the detective thriller and has adapted these methods to novels of much greater profundity and power than the regulation whodunit. The plot revolves around a crime, an innocent drawn into the crime and the destruction of the innocent by modern society and its corrupters—all by means of the suspense usually found in the thriller. The suspense is not generated over the crime or the guilt over the crime but over the spectacle of suffering innocence; the rhetoric, then, is that of tragedy.

By mixing tragic and melodramatic techniques with comic and satiric devices, Wagoner achieves effects which have recently been labeled as "comedy of the absurd." In fact, his novels seem to be rooted in a kind of midwestern existentialism; while they give no evidence of orthodox modern European existentialist doctrine, they reveal Wagoner's fascination with "alienated" characters, with man driven to (and over) the brink of destruction beyond his comprehension, with the individual's fate in an apparently chaotic world, all familiar patterns in the recent novel. However, in their combination of diverse ingredients, Wagoner's novels seem unique. They are somewhat similar in milieu and characterization to Graham Greene's early novels, especially Brighton Rock, but they are Greene without theology (except in a very general sense) and Greene plus a keen and very specific socio-political awareness….

If David Wagoner's development of a dominant theme or myth suggests a limited range of interests or techniques, one should give attention to his broad diversity of comic and rhetorical effects. Wagoner closely controls his narrative, using both dialogue and description with economy and clarity. The dialogue is crisp and direct, authentically Middle Western in flavor, but invested with the wit and energy of comedy repartee. His characters, high and low, serious and comic, are masters of the...

(The entire section is 1,605 words.)