Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1605
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 wise-crack. From his forceful and concise dialogue, his narratives gain precision and rapidity, yet he is perceptive of and sensitive to nuances of character and landscape; descriptive passages are functional rather than ornamental, used to keep the tone consistent. His prose is often poetic without becoming "poetical," giving a sense of control and suggesting the presence of a shaping intelligence and wit.
William J. Schafer, "David Wagoner's Fiction: In the Mills of Satan," in Critique Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 1, 1966, pp. 71-89.
[David Wagoner] is witty as need be; his ear is reliable; he knows how to elevate the colloquial without inflating it; he is especially good at endings, in the last phrase or trope throwing you out in a direction you hadn't expected or back into the thereby altered poem itself.
George P. Elliott, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1967 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 1, Spring, 1967, p. 143.
Baby, Come on Inside is the most recent of David Wagoner's five novels, the first of which was published fifteen years ago. He has doggedly managed to write himself into being more nearly a novelist than he was at the start. His novels have literary pretensions, they are probably supposed to derive from Hemingway, and the last two are readable; but maybe his ambition from the start has been strictly business, to sell a book to the movies. At any rate he keeps slipping into the all too easily visualizable reticences of the hard-boiled thriller, that compliant resource of American Grade-B and French New Wave film-makers alike.
Marvin Mudrick, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1969 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXI, No. 4, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 751-52.
David Wagoner's New and Selected Poems covers a period of approximately fifteen years (mid-1950's to 1968) during which Wagoner, like many poets of his generation, moved from regular to open forms. Though Wagoner never wholly abandons regular surface structures, the few that survive in his later work are always diluted, often amounting only to a stanza of a fixed number of lines without rime or meter…. Wagoner's subsequent movement into open forms is paralleled by a shift into the narrative mode…. This shift into narrative verse is not uncommon among poets who move from regular to open forms. They simply use the narrative thread in place of a regular surface structure as their formal principle….
In the minds of readers Wagoner is generally associated with a group of poets (Stafford, Hugo, Hanson, and Kizer) who were located in the Pacific Northwest during the nineteen-fifties and -sixties and who were influenced by the work of Theodore Roethke. In particular, these poets seem to have taken as their thematic starting-point Roethke's later poems celebrating the material world and man's continuity with that world. One variant of that theme is at the core of Wagoner's poetry: the acknowledgment of man's animality and its consequences. This is in a sense the main confessional motif (though one does not usually think of Wagoner as a confessional poet). Or, more precisely, it is the psychoanalytic motif.
John T. Irwin, in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by The University of the South), Winter, 1973, pp. 166-69.
There is a … plain honesty in David Wagoner's poetry that is appealing to me. I am not going to be able to say all that I would like to about Wagoner, but a few things need saying. For example, Riverbed is the work of a fine poet. Wagoner has been adept with language from his first collection of poems, Dry Sun, Dry Wind (1953). These poems were traditional in form; not striking, but obviously good. Already, Wagoner showed his skill in description of nature; a skill which he has never lost. Wagoner does not write bad lines anymore….
A new method and tonality appeared in this second volume, in poems like Murder Mystery and Lullaby Through the Side of the Mouth. These are poems at a distance spoken elegantly askew. They are not immediately comprehensible, and they suggest the rhythms of fairy-tales. This quality was not lost in The Nesting Ground (1963), though the poems became more tight-lipped and curt. Rhyme no longer predominated and the general approach was more fanciful. There were tours de force, such as After Consulting My Yellow Pages, a near relative to found poetry, and easy, personal poems such as No Sale and The Watch. More interesting was the first clear identification of the magician as a significant inhabitant of Wagoner's poetic world….
It was in The Nesting Ground as well that another prominent feature of Wagoner's poetry first became evident. In such poems as Once upon a Picnic Ground, The Watch, and The Carcass, he began to use clichés and idioms in a playful manner. By Riverbed, what had been an amusing device, threatens to become a mannerism, obscuring the quality of otherwise fine poems. And this fascination with idioms and clichés is related to an increasing cuteness in Wagoner's poems that, for me at any rate, hints at a falling off from the new poems of New and Selected Poems (1969)….
At his best [Wagoner] can reinvigorate the worn-out language of clichés and skillfully manipulate a pun. In The Middle of Nowhere, he begins with the cliché and develops it into a state of mind. It is a thoughtful and probing poem, expanding our way of perceiving instead of trapping it in a trick. These are the dangers for a magician of language. Sometimes the tricks don't work and you seem to be a charlatan. But when they work! The brilliant Epitaph for a Ladies' Man shows how far Wagoner can carry surprises of language and still succeed. And whatever cuteness there is in Song Off Key is subordinated to the successful accomplishment of the joke.
John R. Reed, "Magicians and Others," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1973, pp. 52-4.