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BOOK REVIEW : Poetic Prose of Underground New York : SUBWAY LIVES; 24 Hours in the Life of the New York City Subway, by Jim Dwyer , Crown, $20; 312 pages

December 25, 1991|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To Jim Dwyer, the poet laureate of the New York underground, a subway car is "800,000 pounds of metal and plastic and another quarter million of flesh and blood, the greatest moving mass of human tissue in the universe." And, at least in Dwyer's company, a ride on the subway is a trip into a fleshly phantasmagoria of pulsating urban humanity.

"You could fall in love or get snake bitten or see a baby born," he rhapsodizes in "Subway Lives." "Hear a conductor do Elvis routines between stops. Buy a cabbage or a condom. Watch an actress rehearse Garcia Lorca. Study Islam. Salvage a soul. Shinny up a banister in a station where the stairs have been stolen."

Dwyer mastered the subways as a beat reporter for New York Newsday. His column, "In the Subways," afforded him "a yard of newspaper space every other day, unlimited tokens, and four years in the subways." Along the way, he began to see the subway as both a machine of gargantuan proportions and a setting for the most intimate of human encounters.

"Subway Lives" resembles a prose version of those scary but somehow lyrical black-and-white cityscapes of the photographer Weegee. Dwyer allows us to glimpse an artful selection of the 8 million lives beneath the Naked City: a subway conductor, a token-booth attendant, a transit-authority executive, a very pregnant welfare mother, a posse of tag artists whose canvas is the rolling stock, all of them captured in flash-photo scenes that flicker before us like the windows of a night train.

Dwyer has an eye for the oblique moments of abject terror, high drama and deep passion that can be discerned in the rocking and rolling world of the subway: a scam, a seduction, a voodoo sacrifice, a token-booth robbery in which the weapons were a lighter and a gas can. And he can even pick out moments of authentic if understated chivalry, as when a strap-hanger comes to the rescue of a desperate young woman in the midst of a subtle sexual assault in the confines of a crowded subway car.

All of these slices of life are patched together with Dwyer's eager statistical asides, everything you always wanted to know about the subway--and more. From the gross daily weight of human flesh carried on the subway (167 million pounds) to the precise amount of space allocated to each subway rider in the "loading guidelines" of the Transit Authority (3.0 square feet), Dwyer keeps up the ingratiating chatter of a tour guide who's trying hard to entertain his charges.

Still, Dwyer is one writer who clearly cares about the craft of writing--a rare and noteworthy quality in the contemporary author--and he manages to work up an invigorating street-corner rhythm, a kind of subway ragtime that rewards the patient reader who endures some of the duller moments of subway history and politics. Sometimes the wordplay is sly and ironic, sometimes brutal, but it's always lilting and somehow musical.

"Subway Lives" may be hard-boiled, but it's best understood as an epic poem, and Dwyer himself comes across as a faintly Homeric figure, a late 20th-Century urban bard who finds something heroic in (and under) the mean streets of Gotham.

Next: Devon Jersild reviews "He, She and It" by Marge Piercy (Alfred A. Knopf).

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