I originally discovered Louis Daniel Brodsky’s poetry about twenty years ago when I was snared by a title called Capital Cafe: Poems of Redneck U.S.A. I’ve been hooked ever since. An astoundingly prolific and wide-ranging writer, Brodsky’s sixty to seventy volumes of poetry include a number of collections on the Holocaust (Gestapo Crows, The Eleventh Lost Tribe and Rabbi Auschwitz among others); a series of books of political poetry written during the disastrous Bush administration years (the four-volume Shadow War series and the three-volume Regime Change series as well as Showdown with a Cactus); volumes of more contemplative verse on nature and rural life (Once Upon a Small-Town Time and the three-volume Lake Nebagamon series among them), love poems, family poems, regional poems and more. In most of these, and especially in his wonderful series of short fictions, such as This Here’s a Merica and Catchin’ the Drift o’ the Draft, Brodsky displays a wicked sense of humor, at once satiric and Rabelaisian.
Indeed, it was this side of Brodsky’s writing that originally charmed me, in The Capital Cafe, and it is in full force in Dine-Rite, which is likewise centered around a restaurant, its staff and clientele. Yet it should be noted that even at his most sarcastic, Brodsky is a poet with a conscience – Jeremiah with a sense of humor.
Dine-Rite is a suburban diner in a bedroom community outside of Saint Louis, Missouri, owned by one John Marks, an enormous, self-styled Baptist preacher (“All three-hundred-plus floundering pounds of him”). It is a place for gourmandizing and bible study, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two. A number of factions patronize the café, but the group of bible-thumping Baptists, followers of John Marks, are the most conspicuous. With self-righteous unction they spout bible verses to address “other people’s problems and their own,” but not infrequently slip into swapping ribald jokes, “Tasteless, off-color, profane, misogynistic, homophobic,/Seething with racial and ethnic bigotries.”
Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the activities of the clientele, but Dine-Rite also suffers from grotesque problems involving plumbing and pests, as described in such jaw-dropping poems as “Bobby-Bill Jones: Manager of the Hour” (Managers come and go at Dine-Rite as John Marks has little patience for mistakes. Only Luke Matthews, the final manager, seems to have any success.) and “Reaching Flood Stage.” These are hilarious even as they are disgusting:
Abruptly, Dine-Rite’s foundation shudders
From what might be an earthquake –
The beast of the New Madrid Fault, come around –
Or the sonic boom of a Boeing test jet
Or a hundred-car pileup on the parking lot
Or the dumpster falling off the trash truck’s forks.
The deafening roar Pompeiis everyone, midbite,
Nagasakis their faces, with fright,
As a tidal wave of water invades the dining room.
Panicking, everyone tramples each other, to reach the exits,
Avoid the swirling turds from the ruptured sewer main.
Brodsky’s exaggerated humor of the grotesque is also on display in poems like “Kine-dred Spirits” (“Holy cow! This boisterous Wednesday morning…”) in which the customers are likened to cattle – from the Baptist Bible-thumpers to the coaches from a nearby parochial school – and “Gluttonous for the Lord,” a poem about John Marks that vividly and memorably shows him in his full corpulence – more porcine than bovine. These poems bring to mind the caricatures of Honoré Daumier, the 19th century French painter whose unflattering sketches of people in society as animals also highlight certain character traits.
As befits this comic tour de force, Brodsky has a fine way of ending many of the poems with the power of a punchline to a joke. “Pocket Pal,” for instance, a riff on a plumbing supply company’s promotional diary, complete with inspirational sayings, concludes:
Arriving at the last page,
I found the most memorable gem of all,
This one handwritten, reaching out, personally, to me:
“For all your plumbing needs,
Contact me, Sid Pearlmutter,
I know toilets like the back of your hand.”
While there is a loose drama at work in Dine-Rite that carries a narrative thread – with recurring characters such as the waitresses and the short order cooks – some poems stand out on their own as purely delightful meditations. In “Introductory Offer,” one gourmandizing breakfaster finds that his personal breakfast concoction, which he privately calls “Eggs Tetrazeeny” (a mush of scrambled eggs, hash browns, fake-bacon bits, doused with a bottle of ketchup), has been commandeered by Dine-Rite as a menu special. Another notable poem is “Red,” a meditation by one of the nameless regulars – one of those retirees whose social life revolves around the café, self-described “alter kocher farts” – which tells the story of a young woman who for a time came regularly to Dine-Rite, an attractive girl who dressed exclusively in red and whom the regulars dubbed “Little Red Riding Hood.” They appreciated that she brought a little color to their lives. And then, just as suddenly, she stopped coming.
We still kind of miss Little Red Riding Hood.
She’d brighten up our day,
Stir up the wolf in our bones.
Brodsky’s verse is full of internal rhymes. He clearly delights in sounds, wallows in language. It’s no surprise that he’s also a William Faulkner scholar, drunk on rich, vivid imagery. “With the zeal of an eager Eagle scout,” begins the poem, “Pocket Pal.” “It’s a rambunctious hump-day morning,” the first line of “Dine-Rite Atoll” beckons. “He’s in his normal Friday-a.m. good-mood mode” kicks off “Brotherhood of Rat Breeders.” Brodsky seduces us with the sounds, pulls us into the stories that follow.
While Brodsky is plainly having fun in Dine-Rite, his satire also points up the hypocrisies implicit in a certain strain of evangelical Christians, but then, they do present an easy target, and while he does shine a light on them, the main thing about Dine-Rite is the outrageous hilarity of the verse. I won’t spoil it by describing the denouement, but readers will want to feed on Dine-Rite through to its very end, “The Transfiguration of Dine-Rite.” served up in the epilogue.
Similar Reads: The Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin; How to Be Perfect by Rod Padgett.