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Letters to Wendy's

Book Review

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Letters to Wendy's
Joe Wenderoth
(Verse Press)

What first comes across as a cute gimmick--a gathering of strange notes written on Wendy's comment cards (Tell us about your visit--WE CARE!), displays a stunning depth that you wouldn't expect. Spanning a time of 13 months, the unnamed scribe of these thoughts and confessions (and yes, sometimes even comments) chronicles the slow demise of mankind's sanity. A sanity that is urged to consume Biggie portions of food and eat baked potatoes that even the Virgin Mary discovers are "dry as fuck."

Wenderoth, a young Minnesota poet whose work has been compared to Philip Larkin and Jack Gilbert, has stretched everything in this book: the use of language, the function of fiction, the context of humor, and the etiquette of philosophy. Some of the entries even read like pornstore smut ("I'd like you to take your fat tongue and run it from my asshole to my clit over and over again," he imagines Wendy saying to him one day). Yet, besides the writer's fascination with sex, there is also a need--based on the ritual of GOING to Wendy's--to feel a belonging, a part of a living scene: "It would bring me to despair to think that I could get a Frosty in my own kitchen. I need believe that a Frosty can only be gotten 'outside' of where I ordinarily dwell. 'To be constantly' in the place of real Frosties--this is unthinkable, somehow unbearable. The fact is: to be a subject of language is to desire an Event, and an Event needs a nothing to move out of, to seem to begin."

The writer's reality predictably gets more skewed as the book tumbles onward, yet the dozens of references to pop culture figures, which I expected, were missing. Instead, the closest things to name-dropping are mentions of Foucault and Artaud. Not even Dave Thomas is mentioned. It seems that the writer indeed exists in his own world, where only his visits to Wendy's and their "attractive" employees are allowed (although once he even admits to thinking that their name tags are untruthful). The other customers seem to fade in and out of his focus. He alternately ponders what it would be like to rub their heads or to be their doctor, and in one scene says: "Standing there waiting for fries, me and this older man. He said to me, 'You'd think they had to grow the potatoes!' I replied, a bit too loud, 'Daddy fucked me!' The man seemed angry--I don't think he understood what I meant. It's as though we were on the same field, playing different games." Later on, the Wendy's muzak even comes under suspicion, the writer claiming to be swayed by what he calls "tranq-bath songs."

I was constantly amazed by this book (portions of which had appeared in Harper's months ago) and the forest of green bookmarks sticking out of its pages are reminders to me of how many times I demanded friends to read parts of it. In fact, despite nothing resembling real closure and many entries that simply left me puzzled, Wenderoth has constructed a creation that kept me enthralled and entertained with its jolts of violent humor and its brainy surrealism: "Today I walked in and they wrapped me in meat. They stitched the meat to me with empty sentences. They smeared the stitches with faces--I don't know whose. They wrapped it all up in my voice, but this never really worked. When I spoke you could only hear the faces smeared into the stitches the color of meat. So I began, without confidence, to try to take off my voice." Letters to Wendy's is an amazing performance of subversion.

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