June Read of the Month: “Rough Beast,” by Tim Peeler

Tim Peeler

Tim Peeler

Reviewed by Danilo Thomas

Tim Peeler’s twelfth book, Rough Beast, issued by Future Cycle Press, concentrates on the life of Larry, a holler boy raised viciously. By utilizing narrative, anecdote, exemplar, and a perspective shift that attempts an objective glance at the subject matter, the four separate sections of poems that comprise Rough Beast parse Larry’s existence into its defining moments, culling back scar tissue and blowing air into the exposed wounds long ago rent in Larry’s life, and demonstrating Larry’s inability to flinch at the pain. Though many of the tropes of Rough Beast may come across as stock, Peeler’s fresh colloquialisms, his eye for beauty in the rugged environs he depicts, and his face-to-head syntax, create a portrait of a man reared in a degradation that has become the only thing with which he can identify. Over time, this degradation becomes his identity, and he projects a caricature into the world, losing himself, which might have been the only thing he had ever wanted to save.

In the first section of Rough Beast, “Origin of the Species,” Peeler uses anecdote and instant to portray what passes for normal in Larry’s childhood. The first poem, “Larry’s Anecdotal Evidence 97,” indicates a family life rooted in poverty. As Peeler writes, “they wore overalls / and whatever shoes / they got from the church / that came to their holler / twice a year,” in reference to Larry’s father and uncle’s beginnings. “When they got old enough, / they run off to find / anything or anybody else,” taking with them abuse and neglect, rearing degradation’s progeny from one holler to the next. The inability to escape the horror and genealogy of depravity is indicated in the poem “Time Traveler,” which chronicles Larry’s tendencies to dream days away in a bourbon induced stupor as Larry lives “a week in one day,” sipping “the bourbon flask / till he slept, … the world had slowed to its / regular crawl and he shrugged / the whole day off as a dream.” Beyond addiction lies violence, and “Larry’s Anecdotal Evidence 4” expounds upon the adventures of the brothers, Rat and Boy, raised like dogs in the home of a cruel master, whose violent response (“that night with the butcher knife / was the best one of his life”), which was told to Larry in a shared prison cell, is acted out in predictable horror.

The land on which these boys reside as they slowly become men is poisoned with cruel disadvantage, and it turns them into the criminals that Peeler introduces us to in the second section of Rough Beast, “Infrareal,” where a heightened reality, or an existence that is beyond the real exists in petty, first-world problems that would seem to an everyday American quite normal. Peeler manifests Larry as a neo-culture iconoclast, where Larry the drug dealer and monster holds an alternative view to the ways in which the world finds itself vital, both physically, as in “Barn Burning,” where the members of a fitness center “sighed deeply and / the piped music seemed to return / and the rollers and pulleys and little motors / hummed again of the happy electric herd,” and mentally, as in “Rough Beast,” where Larry bullies his way to what he wants. Through the ways in which he plays it, Larry’s life exists as an alternative to 21st Century America’s embarrassment of riches, because Larry has a penchant for ending up in situations that starkly exaggerate the differences between a comfortable lifestyle, with its overblown and petty issues, and his own life, which is often a struggle between physical damage or death. This deliberate contrast is a choice that Peeler makes throughout the book, although the realities of Larry’s life are obvious from the first go-round. In this way, “Infrareal” holds true to its claim of an existence beyond the real, and moves Larry from an interesting character into a caricature of what he thinks of himself and his role in this life.

It is this identity that he is unable to relinquish in the third section of the book, “Laureate.” Here, Peeler offers an interesting and unpredictable turn as Larry, having been released from prison, uses the writing skills he honed in a prison creative-writing workshop to make himself a literary superstar. As Peeler tells it, Larry becomes “a hardscrabble / genius and the next point in America’s / poetry constellation while the / New Yorker called him a dirt farm / Bukowski and Harper’s deemed him / the most honest man in America. / Larry cashed the checks.” Even though the literary sphere opens it arms to Larry, offering what fame and fortune it can, this achievement does not soften his demeanor. Rather, the kindness and the money paraded around him do naught but agitate, if not fortify the man’s dark habits. Through Larry, Peeler makes a statement about who can write, and what they can write about. Anyone. Anything. And this is a stance that deserves defense in this the Year of MFA v. NYC. However, Larry’s lack of tact, his violent outbursts, the belligerent and mean-spirited mutterings that spill out of his mouth, accompanied by an oft-regurgitated rhetoric aimed at the Western Literary Canon, dispel any reason to champion this character for the writer who does not adhere to a belief other than the belief in Larry.

And maybe that there are no sides but your own is the point. It is what Larry mulls over in “Larry’s Secondary Musing” from the fourth and final section, “Larry’s Requiem for Uncle Barton.”In this poem, Larry martyrs himself on the cross of hardscrabble, raw-doggedness, as he states that he is “sometimes right as Christ, / more often bob-wire bad.” Outwardly, Larry does not want justification. He is only a mixture of meanness and talent for which Rough Beast, much like Tenacious D’s song about the best song in the world, is merely tribute, and as such, can only satirize the subject of Larry. We see this in Larry’s need to remind the world that he is mean, that he is hateful, that he is angry, that he don’t give no shits. This need demonstrates an internalized fear of rejection, and the need for constant attention that Peeler carves into the landscapes with a deft control of language and a keen eye for unique detail.

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