5 Stars

Hugely enjoyable

Some people find Roger Ballou to be old-fashioned, opinionated, and irritating. He is also smart, funny, and completely honorable. The diverse group of people he finds himself among, after accepting a new teaching position, seem real in their reactions to life and to each other. Another novel following their lives and adventures would be most welcome. The hullaballoo over the school mascot was familiar to me, as I remember a similar conflict with the Kansas City Chiefs and the “tomahawk chop” (my hometown). A first-rate first novel.

Seán Fitzpatrick

5 Stars

A happy, humane academic novel,
inevitably satiric

Hysterically funny and prescient. Shows how “Woke” ideology was a radical intrusion into academia in the ’80s & ’90s.
Lectures on poetry are good, too.

Suzanne Knosp

5 Stars

This was a fun read for me

This was a fun read for me. It’s a book that I will keep in my library and read again and again!


Tuesday, May 18, 1999 Roger Ballou liked to imagine, when he was out on the streets of Manhattan, that people were noticing him, and he carried himself so as to be noticed. He was 42, but looked younger. He was six feet tall, and heavy, but in reasonable shape: meaty rather than fat. He stood almost too erectly, his wide shoulders thrown back and his chest outthrust, head high, and he walked quickly and with long strides, despite a limp caused by an improperly corrected clubfoot. Already, at 9:30 in the morning, the weather was warm and humid, foretelling a brutal summer. Ballou hated summer. He guessed that this might be the last day, until fall, that he could wear his favorite suit, a charcoal-grey double-breasted pin-stripe, so perfectly tailored that it appeared to have been painted on him. His shirt was white, his tie the darkest possible red. A white linen handkerchief peeped out of his breast pocket. His dark hair was slicked back, Jack Nicholson-style. In all, his dress and grooming habits had stabilized in the men’s fashion renaissance of the mid-1980s, and had hardly changed at all since then. Ballou’s face was large, pale, and smooth. His nose was aquiline but slightly askew, his mouth narrow and lipless. His eyes were tiny and Asiatic — almost piggy — and they gave Ballou a menacing, violent aspect, even when he didn’t want them to. He would often try to make eye contact with people as he passed them in the street, just to see how they’d react. Women particularly. He usually tempered his threatening affect with an ironic little dimpling – not quite a smile – and a tiny twinkling of the eye, as though reminding the other person of a naughty secret. By the time he’d reached his destination – the Alliance Capital Building on Sixth Avenue at 55th Street, two miles from his apartment – his appearance had deteriorated considerably. His face and hair were dripping; his shirt collar was soaked. He would have paused in the enormous lobby for a few minutes, to let the perspiration process slow and stop, and to let the sweat evaporate somewhat, but he no longer had that time to spare. He went directly to the elevators and rode to the 28th floor, to the American Association of Executive Management, giving his face a fast toweling with his for-blow handkerchief on the way up, and re-combing his hair. Ballou could have done business with the AAEM – his biggest client – entirely via e-mail, but he felt that regular face-time was key to client retention, so he made a point of monthly visits to the company’s editor-in-chief of periodicals, to get his assignments. He was on a $2,000-a-month retainer – had been, for the past five years – to write articles for AAEM’s several newsletters. Linda Bierschaum was a peppery, elfin old lady with a braying voice, who wore too much jewelry and a spicy perfume that revolted Ballou. Her office was a tiny cubicle, no more than five feet by five. Ballou sat in the visitor’s chair, going knee-to-knee with Ms. Bierschaum when she turned her chair from her desk to face him. Ordinarily it amused Ballou to observe that the AAEM – a think tank that claimed expertise in modern, high-powered management – kept its employees in the same uncomfortable, undignified conditions that it criticized in its books and seminars. This morning, he wasn’t in the mood to smile about it. He was still pumping sweat and trying to control it with his handkerchief – and trying to breathe lightly. “Blanca, get this poor guy some water,” Ms. Bierschaum hollered to her assistant, who sat in the next cubicle. “Roger, why not take a taxi?” “It’s my Calvinist ancestry, no doubt,” Ballou replied. “Life is supposed to be uncomfortable. Besides, walking everywhere keeps me in control. If I’m on foot, I’m on time, see? Being late for an appointment is like missing a deadline. I don’t allow it to happen.” “You’re such an A type! You’ll give yourself a stroke.” Ballou shrugged. “It’s a good day to die.” Ms. Bierschaum shook her head. “Roger, you are so weird.” Blanca squeezed into the cubicle and handed Ballou a small bottle of Poland Spring, which he drained in a few seconds. “You need a vacation, Roger,” said Ms. Bierschaum. “Can’t afford one. If I take a few days off, there’s nobody running the store. When I’m not working on an assignment, I’m selling myself, looking for new clients.” “Well, you might want to take one now. I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. We’ve got a new editorial director, and this guy – well, he’s one of those guys who either he’s a genius or he’s insane, but whichever it is, he’s overhauling the department, and he’s decided that from now on, AAEM’s publications are going to be entirely Web-based. No more newsletters or magazines. So that means my job is now redundant, and I don’t mind, because I’m 70 next month and I’ve been getting ready to retire anyway – but I guess it doesn’t do you any good.” “Wait, though,” said Ballou. “Won’t he still need content?” “That’s what I asked him,” said Ms. Bierschaum, “and he just pooh-poohed me, or actually he didn’t even answer me. That’s why I wonder just how stable he is. But bottom line is that I’ve been told not to assign anything further to my freelancers. I’m sorry. Really. It’s been wonderful to work with you, and if I could have persuaded him to keep using you, you know I would have.” Ballou stared. “So… that’s the end of my retainer? Just like that?” “I’m sorry.” “But that’s almost half my income. That’s two grand a month that I don’t have anymore.” “I know, it’s terrible. But at least you’re not losing your whole job. You only have to make up a couple of thousand a month, not all of it.” Ballou was about to snap back something angry and sarcastic, but before he could, he heard Ms. Bierschaum saying, “I’m going to look around for you. Believe me, I feel awful about this, and I really will see what I can do for you.” “Well, thanks.” Ballou forced himself to keep an even tone. “It can’t be easy, spending half your time looking for clients. Haven’t you ever thought of going back to a real job?” “I’ve been out of that market for too long,” said Ballou. “I’ve been freelancing for 15 years; I’m probably unemployable. Even if someone hired me, I couldn’t command a salary similar to what I make freelancing. As an associate editor, or some such thing? Forget it. I can barely pay my rent as it is.” “How about getting out of the city?” Ms. Bierschaum asked. “You could freelance from anywhere. Why not move somewhere cheaper, and spend more time writing poetry or fiction or whatever it is that you really want to write?” “Move to some Hooterville or other where I just sit around all day missing Manhattan?” Ballou replied. “If you’re not in the city, you’re camping out. That’s why I came here after college – and I could never have made any kind of career for myself anywhere else. Besides, any ideas I ever had of being a poet or a novelist evaporated years ago. I don’t have the talent. Writers who can write, write creatively. Those who can’t, write commercially.” Ms. Bierschaum looked rather severe. “That gives me an idea,” she said. “Have you ever thought of teaching?” “Never, and who’d have me? I’ve got no credentials. Don’t you need some sort of certificate, at least? Not to mention a graduate degree of some kind?” “Not at a lot of places,” said Ms. Bierschaum. “Private schools. Some of the smaller colleges. My son-in-law is chair of the English department at Van Devander College. Upstate, in Wildenkill. I could ask him.” “I’m not moving up to Wildenkill; come on!” “I’m not talking about that. But maybe he knows of some schools here in the city that need someone to teach writing. Would that interest you?” Ballou sighed. “I suppose it might.” “Roger, I should have put poison in that water you just drank,” said Ms. Bierschaum. “You are so negative. Just what do you want out of life, anyway? I mean, if you’d wanted to be a great writer badly enough, you’d have worked at it. Instead of cranking out crap for clients like us, just so you can afford to stay in Manhattan. And you’re not even enjoying it. I think it’s the idea of living in Manhattan you’re married to, more than the reality. And that’s another thing. Why don’t you get married? Find a nice girl to support you.” Finally Ms. Bierschaum smiled a little, and Ballou chuckled grudgingly – and bitterly. “Yeah, sure, there are plenty of women who’d marry me. Years and years ago, I used to have actual dates: just imagine. It’s not that easy anymore.” “You should go for someone younger, Roger. I’m sure you could get plenty of young girls. You’d impress them.” “You’d think, right? Given my stunning good looks and all. But, no. Ordinarily, the only way a young woman will go for an older guy is if he’s in a position of power. I’m supposed to have a date tonight with a woman who says she’s 25. A blind date. Met her through a personal ad on the Web. We’re supposed to meet for a drink and I have this awful premonition that I’m going to be stood up. We talked on the phone a couple nights ago, and when I told her I was 42 she just said, ‘Oh,’ as though she couldn’t quite bring herself to back out of the date right then and there. If she shows up tonight, I’ll be staggered. See, it hasn’t even happened, and already I’m feeling homicidal.” “Could be your own attitude that’s getting in your way, then,” said Ms. Bierschaum, severe again. “Women can read attitudes, even over the phone. Listen to this, Roger. A woman only ever has one criterion when she’s choosing a boyfriend. It doesn’t matter whether she’s looking to get married; the question is always going to be, ‘Would I breed from this guy?’ Even if you’re not planning to have children – even if you’re as old as I am – that is going to be the question, every time: ‘Would I breed from this guy?’ So evidently you’re doing something wrong, or going after the wrong women. And if it’s important enough to you to figure out what you’re doing wrong, you’ll figure it out, and you’ll change it.” Ballou shrugged. He felt he was being scolded – and scolded for being unattractive to women, at that: a fault he believed he couldn’t help. “Maybe it’s the way you present yourself,” said Ms. Bierschaum. “You know, you’re so formal-looking – and you do look like you could kill someone. I’m used to it now, but I used to be a little afraid of you. It’s your eyes. You look so scary.” Ballou shrugged again, this time in a “What can I do?” gesture. He was getting angrier and angrier. “Anyway,” said Ms. Bierschaum, “it’s just something to think about. Don’t take my word for it. I’ll call my son-in-law today, and I’ll let you know what he says. And again, I’m sorry. I wish I could give you a final set of assignments, anyway, so you’d have time to look for some new clients, but they just dropped this news on me the other day. Let me walk you to the elevator.” Ballou said not a word as Ms. Bierschaum led him through the long row of cubicles, toward the elevator bank. When the elevator arrived, she stood a-tiptoe and kissed Ballou on the cheek. She’d never done that before. “Good luck,” she said. “Don’t kill anyone on your way home.” Home, for Ballou, was 450 square feet – two tiny rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom – in a dark, dilapidated walkup near the corner of Second Avenue and 26th Street. The apartment was barely big enough to contain his books, his clothes, and what passed for his office. He sat at his desk – in a cheap plastic-upholstered swivel chair from Office Depot – and stared into space. He could have made cold calls to prospective clients. He could have called a few established clients, to try to drum up more work. But he could not get himself to move. Ballou spent an hour rolling cigarettes: enough to get him through the next week or so, he guessed, as he was not a heavy smoker. He thought about doing a little housework, but told himself that even if this blind date went well, it would certainly not end at his apartment, so why bother? He heard a scratching outside his apartment, and looked up to see an envelope being slipped under his door. He got up and opened it, and found a letter that began, “Dear Valued Tenant,” which in his experience meant, “Drop your pants and assume the position.” Dobrian, Joseph . Willie Wilden (pp. 1-7). Rex Imperator. Kindle Edition.

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