boylan-croppedNever stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein


Chapter 1

          Marina Yakht, formerly of Rostov-on-Don, was delighted with her new American house. It was long and low, made of brick (??????), or a reasonable facsimile thereof (??????????), with an imitation-tile roof, a fine tall chimney, recently relined, and central heating and air conditioning, recently replaced. The place would have looked positively swanky in the suburbs of Rostov. But here in New Ur of the Chaldees, Ohiowa, it was just average.


Around the house’s adjoining quarter-acre, punctuated with shrubs and a gravel path, the odd old tree, bird-seeking cat, cat-shirking bird, and many a wild weed ran a dull and slightly sagging wooden fence that would, indeed, have looked right at home in a Rostovian (or Tolstoyan) context. Across the street (Whey Way), along which traffic moved at varying speeds on four wheels or two, was a branch of the B+ Bank and Nat’s General Store and Chemistry Set, a small grocery store and pharmacy run by Nat, a morose, potbellied figure with a bald head and long silky hair on his shoulders, as his fondness for wearing sleeveless T-shirts made unpleasantly evident.

“Next,” was what Nat usually said, but when Marina asked him for cigarettes he said, “Restrooms are for customers only.”

“Not resting in room, cigarettes. Cigarettes. What’s wrong, it’s against the law everywhere now here too, smoking?”


On Marina’s left, behind a tattered hedge in a mold-grown split-level ranch house with grimy roof tiles, a dead tree at the back, and in the driveway a soiled panel van with the hippieish slogan GOT IT? ZAP IT! on both its sides lived a man named Bolt, according to the fading letters on the mailbox.

Okh, khippis,” she said to herself.

But, hippies or not, and thinking such neighborly practices were common in America, Marina went over to introduce herself. Before she could ring the doorbell, however, the door swung open with the silent suddenness of Dracula’s coffin lid, displaying a) Bolt; and b) a bright-eyed, barrel-shaped, growling miscegenation of many rat-terrier bloodlines. Bolt, by contrast, was a tall, dark, and spare Indian-looking man with a two- or three-day growth of beard and long gray hair.  An olive-drab trenchcoat partly concealed a red pajama-like garment; frayed carpet slippers shod his feet. A constipated groaning, vaguely Asiatic music of some sort, came from inside the house.


“Hallo, hi! My name, Marina Yak-k-k-h-ht, I gonna be just moving in next…”

“Do you need help resetting your spiritual compass?”

“My what compass?”

“Or a computer repaired?”

The dog growled and edged closer.

“No, no, Bone,” said Bolt. “She’s going away soon.”

“Computer? No, I don’t have yet.”

“Good-bye, then,” said Bolt, and retreated abruptly behind his front door like a cuckoo into its clock. Bone’s growl escalated into a recitative of sharp yelps. Through the frosted glass pane of the door their silhouettes lingered, uncertainly. More barks detonated, echoed, faded away. Marina smelled incense, or just very old things. Like a tomb. There came, too, a whiff of the sewer, or toilet. The music groaned louder.

Okh, chto budyet,” she muttered in her native tongue, invoking both God and the fool.

Thankfully, next door on the right lived people who seemed by contrast to be more-or-less normal: the Thayers, Thornton and Nancy, he a “semi-retired” insurance salesman or accountant or something equally boring, she a teller at the MidUnion Bank. They had two kids, both away at college. Mr. Thayer had a perfectly round paunch, like a bowling ball, and his left hand reposed on it as he conversed. He used a can of beer in his right hand as an aerial baton with which to conduct his thoughts. His wife was tall and loose-limbed, and she fidgeted behind her back, as if sending clandestine hand signals to a confederate.

“Eeyok-k-k-k-h-h-h-h-t,” self-referenced Marina.

“Yot,” said Mr. Thayer. “Yok?”

“Is OK. Just call me Marina.”

“I’m Thornton Thayer.”

“Sornton. Like Veelder?”


“Veelder? Our City? Bridge Around San Luis Rey?”

“Ray…? Oh, yeah. Him. You mean Wilder? The writer? Yeah. My mom was a big fan. I read some of his stuff in high school.”

“Welcome to Russia,” said Mrs. Thayer, made nervous by Marina’s looks (pale skin, black hair, blue eyes) and steady gaze (very blue eyes). “I mean America.”

“America, is true, is very like Russia in some ways, Mrs. Fire,” said Marina, reassuringly. “Big.”

“We used to live in your house,” said Mrs. Thayer. “Until a couple of years ago. Then we built this one. Smaller, with the kids away.”

“Yes,” added her husband, in token of confirmation of all the preceding points.

“Oh really,” said Marina. “Well, if I get lost on way to bathroom, maybe I can like call you to get directions.”

Uncertain laughter followed.

“OK, bye.”

Mr. and Mrs. Thayer watched Marina walk away.

“She sounds very Russian,” remarked she.

“Well, she would, wouldn’t she,” said Mr., whose admiration of the Russian woman’s bluzhin-clad bottom was abruptly terminated by his wife’s remarking,

“I know you didn’t get rid of the leaves from the patio, because the leaf-blower’s still in the garage.”

“O.K., O.K.”

“Don’t you ‘O.K., O.K.’ me.”

*     *    *   *

Truth to tell, Marina was proud of her yagoditsy and proud of being Russian, too. But she knew her country was doomed, so she busied herself with the task of building an outpost of Russian civilization here, in far America (also doomed, but not yet). She hung out a sign hand-lettered “Villa Yakht” in English and Russian, and promptly set about furnishing the place with all the nouveau-riche yearning of a former Rostov-on-Don penthouse dweller (Ulyanovskaya, near the Nativity Cathedral: nice view, but still Rostov). First came the Leon Bakst prints of firebirds and ballerinas, and mournful Repin watercolors of snow-covered steppes, all white, except the sky, with its hopeful tints of gray. Then, upon the mantel, she arranged in chronological order the complete works, in Russian and English, of her favorite author, Vladimir Vladimirovich Sirin, all 26 volumes, from Arlecchino to Zembla, including the three leatherbound first editions she’d come upon in Moscow in a small coffee-scented bookshop off the Arbat, one windy March afternoon in 1994, in between sudden squalls of sunlit rain…God Christ, how much she owed to Sirin! How much life–how many lives–had she lived in his pages! How many vistas had she seen there, how many places near and far! Sometimes she thought half her memories had been invented by him.

(Russians, you see, made up for a lot by reading good books and, even better, by writing them.)

Then she unpacked another memory of her Russian past: the three church icons of SS. Cyril, Constantine, and Igor that her mother had preserved in the attic of her dacha through all the horrid Soviet years. Marina was no believer, new or Old; indeed, her opinion of religion was that it was “bunch of stupid bullshit fairy tales for ignorant idiot babushki with brains like old cabbage,” or words to that effect. Or crap for hypocrites who, during the Soviet era, wanted to assert Great Russian nationalism. As they said, Goditsya–molitsya, a ne goditsya–gorshki pokryvat: “If it fits, pray to it; if it doesn’t, hide it under a pot.” But she loved the age and beauty of the things, so she hung them in the entrance hall. There, a faint whiff of the Russian past floated in the air, and the semi-darkness was yellowishly illuminated by the diamond-shaped windowpane in the front door, evoking the mystical gloom of the long-defunct churches where the icons were born: Ryazan, Tver, Nizhny-Novgorod, Tsaritsyn on the broad blue Volga….

Melancholy oil portraits were also indispensable in any self-respecting Russian ménage. These, and such accessories as vases, crinoline dresses, and flower baskets, were plentiful, Marina discovered, at The Hip Flask, a small organic gay-run (Paul and Pol, married in Wapshot) food-slash-antique furniture emporium on the corner of Fowler Boulevard and Waistline Lane. She emerged with, in one hand, a brown HoleMart shopping bag containing a bottle of her favorite Georgian eau-de-camomile shampoo, and in the other hand a matched set of three small oil paintings bound together with twine. The oils depicted a nameless American family of the nineteenth century; no one else was interested, so she got them for five dollars. (“Five box?” she said, incredulously. They’d sell for at least ten times that back in Rostov.) She christened them the Stranglers, not after the West Coast metallic-fusion rock-salsa-grunge band, of which she had not heard, but rather the family of that name in Georgina Fawcett-Henn’s mid-Victorian masterpiece The Stranglers, of which you have not heard but she had, and which is, or was, much read in Russian high schools: the Rev. Matthew Strangler and his wife Felicity and daughter Prudence. The Stranglers were a local Victorian family, the Rev. a muscular former blacksmith (hence the book’s popularity in working-class Soviet times), quietly depraved behind his Sunday pulpit, given to gin and thoughts of the naked thighs of the young, probably girls, possibly boys; she, Felicity, demure and docile, with no suppressed fires of rebellion–true; some people, mused Marina, were quite happy to be repressed. However, the Stranglers’ daughter, Prudence, later a famous suffragist, was not one of them: she led strikes, and once (1901) joined Lady Lennie Buddocks on a march in London.

Side by side then, together again, they hung in the parlor, the minister in the middle, his womenfolk on either side, catching the rays of the dawn and half-hiding in the shadowy gloaming. They were unthreatening and time-cured, like Caucasus ham. Back in Rostov she’d had similar oils upon the walls, but they were of relatives, with life stories already fixed and static. These strange Stranglers were preferable.

But she had still other rooms to fill: the kitchen, traditional Russian heart of the house; the master bedroom; the study; the bathroom (banya). Just as in Russia, the Internet proved a useful ally, yielding odds and ends of furniture and, on, a blue ceramic stove for the kitchen ($35), a do-it-yourself sauna for the banya ($20) and—best of all–a portfolio of prints by Ilya Rasputin: “Church Hill on the Don,” “Village Idiots By Night,” “The Vulgar Boatmen,” and other treasured classics of Russian kitsch, all at $10 the lot. Art for the masses, at last! Too, she came across pristine recordings of Mandarin Oblomov conducting the Perm Philharmonic in the complete works of Yvonne Korsakov, a steal at six dollars the set of twelve. Marina bought more: the Slonim violin concerto, performed by Pierre Bezuhov at the XXth Party Congress, 1956; the opera “Noss,” by N. N. Polovsky, courtesy of the Novosibirsk Opera and Chorus; and a large color print of the Seine passing in its leisurely fashion under the Pont des Arts, by an unknown artist named Hippolyte Maubeuge. Marina loved Paris, as have all cultured and/or moneyed Russians since time immemorial, or at least the reign of Peter. She’d been there twice, once with Khlebnatov, who, soon after they arrived (“Bah! Parizh? Bah!” was his only comment), bought a bottle of imported Russian Stariy Idyot vodka for an outrageous sum, drank it in three or four gulps, lay down on a bench in the Tuileries, and burst into tuneless renditions of protest ballads of Vysotsky. He refused to move until bodily portaged to the Russian Embassy by the Services d’Ordre, Secteur Russe.

Her second visit was the year after she’d left ridiculous Khlebnatov: alone, near-penniless but radiant with hope and joy, still young, with the great city spread out below her attic room at the Hotel Casimir in the Latin Quarter near the Odeon theatre, under cottonwhite clouds floating across a royal-blue sky. Aie! And she’d never forget the darting gaze that focused into a lascivious stare, at the Cafe Flore, which she’d had to leave, argent oblige, for a plane back to damned Rostov. What was he, a poet? An artist? A salesman? A waiter-to-be? They all looked alike now, with the stubble and mobile I-things and black T-shirts. She would never know.

So Paris faced down the Stranglers. They, she was sure, had never been there. (OK, maybe Felicity.)

Then Marina learned from the Thayers about odd weekend events called “yard sales,” or “garage sales,” at which American families flung open their front doors and garages and divested themselves for a price of unwanted belongings that would have furnished a dozen comfortable homes back in Russia. The point seemed to be to stand outside one’s house and make deprecating remarks to strangers about one’s own possessions, thereby tarnishing both buyer and seller with the opprobrium of bad taste.

“Oh I don’t know what ever possessed me to buy that silly old thing, but I can tell you I can’t wait to get rid of it.”

But Marina didn’t care about taste; or rather, she knew what was good and what was poshlost. Mostly, she knew what she wanted, and went in search of it. And at one of these yard sales, in her second week in New Ur, she found an ornate standing lamp, a bronze Doric pillar crowned with a tasseled shade depicting unicorns, identical to the lamp that had illuminated her childhood readings of Paustovsky, Krzhizhanovsky, and Tolstoy, in the parlor at No. 117 Yanitsa in Rostov, across from the old V. I. Lenin Shoe Factory (from where twice a day for decades emanated a piercing whistle, which, one day in 1991, fell silent forever). She gazed at the lamp and thought of home, her papochka and mamushka now dead, her sister Ivana who was now a “human limousine” in Petersburg, her little brother Oleg who was now the owner of the Ritz-Monako shuttle bus service in Rostov. She thought of them all, but she shed no tears.

A gilded leather set of the complete works of Nikolai Nekrasov, acquired for a dollar at the Horned Rim bookstore downtown, adorned the top shelf of the glass bookcase in the living room, through whose French windows the setting winter sun cast a melancholy–purplish–almost Russian–light. It threw the Stranglers into shadow but illuminated the Pont des Arts and silhouetted the spidery shapes of barren sycamores against bleached-white stratocumulus daubed across the sky-canvas by some divine Fragonard. Marina was simultaneously put in mind of eighteenth-century France and her Slavic homeland, via the Hermitage: then she felt the winds blowing across the black steppe of her soul and she was glad to be in America.

*             *             *             *

Actual education at Downstairs State, she learned, was mostly sidelined by long tedious meetings, long lunches, and an incredible number of games–volleyball, American football, basketball, baseball, softball, handball, netball, kickball, bowl-ball, highball, lowball, etc.  She met few people in her first days on the job, mostly because her classes had been delayed by some computer-generated irregularity in the registration of her courses at the Department of Slavic, Slavonic, Slovenian, and Slovak Studies—“Old Slavonic Epic Verse 203A” and “Basic Russky 101” had been reversed and renumbered 1 to 43—that would require postponing everything until the second week of the new semester.

“New computer system,” said Helen Hillendale, the Dean’s secretary, a motherly-seeming specimen, rotund and smiling, with a stern jaw and an unmotherly glassiness of eye. When Marina went into Helen’s office to receive her identity card, she was greeted by several pictures of cats, or possibly the same cat, where one might expect to see human family photos. They reminded her that she had been contemplating acquiring a dog as to mitigate the solitude, but she felt the stirrings of second thoughts, contemplating Helen Hillendale. Maybe it was better to be just by yourself instead of ending up with an animal substitute for human company. And treating humans the way you should be treating animals. (Marina had a very Russian attitude, composed in equal parts of cynicism and tenderness.) Besides, at 38 she was still youngish; and as a woman, not to mention the former Miss Rostov Greater Metropolitan Oblast, she knew human (i.e., male) company would be along in due course, want it or not. And that might render the presence of an animal redundant, or superfluous.

“You know how it is,” said Helen.

“How is what?”

“With computers. Don’t worry, we’ll get it all sorted out soon enough. Meanwhile, be sure to drop in at Chuck’s for the cookout.  He does a great brisket. It’s the best place to meet everybody.”


“Your colleagues, you know.”

“Ah. Of course. And Chack….? He is….?”

“Oh I’m sorry. Dean McCantinflas. We all call him Chuck.”


“Why? Well, because it’s his name. No, actually his name is Charles. Well, because he wants us to, I guess.”

“But he’s Dean of Faculty, no? And so how is calling Dean of Faculty ‘Chack’ is showing respect?”

Helen Hillendale, who had been looking bemused, sat forward with an expression of sudden comprehension.

“I understand, Marina, that people like you, from the Old World, if I may, find our American informality a little, ah. Surprising. But don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”

“Ha! Maybe. Maybe not.”

But she was unsurprised. It was nothing that she hadn’t seen in Russia, where such informality, not to say rudeness, represented the “new” thinking, especially between Russian guys who called each other by American names: Hi, Frank; hey, Bobby; yo, Dzhim….

“So anyway, Chuck throws this big faculty party at his house at the start of the semester every year, so people can get acquainted. It’s on for this Saturday night. Haven’t you met him yet?”

“No. Not yet.”

“Why, hello. How are you?”

Helen was still looking at Marina, but she was addressing her remarks to the caller at the other, invisible end of her phone, which had suddenly emitted a sound like someone gargling mouthwash.

“Yes, funny, I was just talking about you to our new ah ah ah,” she covered the mouthpiece with a plump beringed hand, “I’m sorry, you are Russian, aren’t you?” she inquired in an undertone, as if apologetic for such indiscretion. “Yes? Ahem. Our new Russian professor, Miz ah. Marina um.” She nodded pleasantly at Marina. “She says she’ll be there.”

It wasn’t as if she had any choice, not as a newly-hired Adjunct Professor who’d been damned lucky to get the job and knew it.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward.”

She was, in a way. In another way, of course, she wasn’t, not at all. Even (or especially) back in Russia she was no good at social events. She’d always been solitary, preferring an imaginary voyage to (say) Provence, aided by Daudet’s Lettres de mon Moulin and Bizet’s Arlésienne at hollow and scratchy top volume on her old record player, to a real journey across town to (say) a birthday party at her uncle Spivakov’s apartment on Krupskaya, even though back in the day uncle Spivakov was a high-ranking Party member and had, as her papochka always said, “the best damned apartment a lifetime of palm-greasing and ass-kissing can buy.” But that wasn’t it, although uncle Spivakov always made her want to move rapidly away in the opposite direction to wherever he was; rather, it was the prying–the artificiality–the mediocrity–the mendacity of social chit-chat, post-Communism especially. Under Communism, for all its miseries (maybe because life was so miserable), people were mentally more alive, they talked more about serious things like Marxism vs. the West; freedom of expression vs. the dictatorship of the proletariat; world revolution vs. socialism in one country; the extent of individual artistic license vs. the demands of socialist realism…that was their compensation, then, having big subjects to talk about. (And vodka to drink, even when that idiot Gorbachev tried to crack down on the national pastime and forced people to distill their own samogon rotgut.) You never knew, then, who might not be there in the morning, so the biggest subject of all always loomed in the wings. Anyway, Marina had always wanted to talk about big subjects, feeling that Life was too short and precious to be whittled away with penknife-strokes of “Did you see Lyubov Maximova’s new perm?” and “Ivan just got a BMW” and “I think I’ll take Mutzi to the groomer tomorrow.” Not that mundanities didn’t have their place, in this most mundane existence. It was just that, beyond the billboards and factory chimneys and powerlines of Life, there was the vast restless sky; and that was God, if anything was. Or at least Art, and there was no difference, really.

But that was all over. Sure, she’d go to “Chuck’s” barbecue on Saturday. Because she was lucky, it was true. Not just to have the job, which could go away at the end of the year anyway; she also got a green card and a house and maybe, someday soon, a car.  All because Pavel Andreyevich Punin, an ex-professor of U.S. and Canadian Studies at Gennady State College who had been originally supposed to take the position at Downstairs State, went on a hunting expedition to the upper Yenisei with Simyon Ostrovsky, the media oligarch, and somehow got himself shot three times in the solar plexus. Big suspicion was that Ostrovsky had shot Pavel Andreyevich himself because Pavel Andreyevich, who was also some poet or other in his spare time, had published a poem in the local Literaturniy Zavod entitled “Klarissa,” full of “o”s and “ah”s and “breast” and “ass” and “let me in”s; and of course Ostrovsky’s new 19-year-old squeeze was none other than Klarissa Helmand, the Volga German starlet (Fast Times at Ex-Collective Farm No. 114A; Lube Up, Tovarisch; Meet Comrade Sputnika), so the connection was clear, even if the reason for Pavel Andreyevich agreeing to go on the trip in the first place wasn’t…apart from being told to by Ostrovsky, and when oligarch tells you to do something, you do it. Like, “Drop everything and go to America.”

Anyway, upshot was that Marina got the phone call and was offered the job, plus residence permit and house, in record time, almost as if somebody knew how desperate she was to never again in her entire life see the view from her office window of Chaikovsky Steel Mill across the railroad tracks and the dead smokestacks and the streetcar rails and the Nativity’s gaudy gilded domes under the smoke and fog of Rostov-on-Don. Plus, her English was pretty good, considering she’d only spent about ten days in an English-speaking country…in London, in ’02, “studying” at a language school but really just having a good time at the Millennium Dom and Lambeth Church and Churchill Park Corner, all those places she remembered reading about as an eager, dreamy young English student in Dr. Oksana Kronwald’s literature course at Rostov State Pedagogical University: Dickens, Perkins, Powett, Powys, Poe….


Also, Marina needed to put behind all the memories of her ex-husband, stupid Khlebnatov. That was another reason she was so eager to get out of Rostov, out of Russia: The longer she stayed, the more likely it was that he’d pop up again, maybe sober, maybe not (hey, who was she kidding? Definitely not), making trouble for her one way or another. She was afraid he’d follow her over here, now that Russians could go anywhere. But maybe he got a job with some other oligarch. Those guys were always on the lookout for muscle, and Khlebnatov had more muscle than brains, she’d give him that: he came up the hard way, from Tamangorodok, a tough coal-mining town in the Donbass, through the old Pioneers and the Army and the Party, to the ideological conversion unit at Rostov State, where they met. Bogu moyu was he handsome, in those days. Like a blond Ukrainian version of the English actor John Batt, or Badd. But he soon went down the spiral staircase headfirst in both hands, as they said back home. And they never had kids, another thing he blamed on her. Well, he was wrong: He was sterile as a stone, she had it from the nurse Ruzhina, who was one of those he’d tried it on with, without success. No; Khlebnatov was just one of those old-fashioned Russian guys who couldn’t get used to the idea that women could do a good job of life without some manly malchik hanging around. Five times a day he’d called her at first, after the divorce came through and she got the assistant professor’s job and he got, as he put it, “nu, shto, less than the nothing that’s at the bottom of an empty vodka bottle,” and the bottom of vodka bottles was something he sure knew a lot about, like half the men in Russia. By the fifth call every day, back in those days, he was drunk, bombed, blind ??????, and full of threats and sentimental snatches of old Cossack army songs. More than once she had to get the militsiya to send a guy around; but when the militsiya guy showed up, he was usually drunk, too.

So screw all Russian men.

“Yeah. Screw Russian men,” said Marina aloud, facing the Stranglers. It was after dinner (a quite good borscht followed by OK golubtsy), vodka-on-the-rocks in one hand, navy-blue Combs & Duncan cigarette in the other. She found she was talking to herself aloud quite a lot, having lived alone for two years, so she forced herself to do it in English: good practice.

“Screw them all.”

Tricky, those “th”s. Always coming out like “z”: “Screw zem.”

Never mind, she’d get the hang of it some day. Time for another drink.

Chapter 2

A billboard displaying smiling cows and buxom pastures, and vice versa, and the words “Welcome to Ohiowa,  breadbasket of the Midwest!” greets traffic entering that great state from Chicagoland on the Governor J. Sherlock Holmes III Memorial Parkway (I-202A), one of the early interstate masterpieces of the Ike Administration, “unfurling its unribbon unbright as umber,” in the words of the poet Potter, all the way across winsome Ohiowa from Fort Dean, famous for agricultural machinery, blonde-braided cheerleaders, brats in batter, and crackling spuds in their jackets, to Macropolis, the state capital, famous for three-piece suits, one-night stands, and corn on the cob; and from Macropolis westward to New Ur of the Chaldees, placid college town and second city of the state. Turning westnorthwestward, the sinuous (some might even say sexy) interstate soon sloughs off the fields of wheat and corn and winningly wends its way across flat Plato Plateau, a plain of loamy soil threaded with streams and canals and once alive with the soft booming of overfed geese and the whirring of guinea hens but now half-hidden under software warehouses and shopping malls and suburban condos in huddled developments bearing hopeful names such as Prairie Lea and Sunkissed Uplands. Grain silos, church spires, water tanks, and mighty oaks set off for the big, beckoning Midwestern sky but never complete the journey, not even the majestic Gabriel Oak, estimated to be 5,000 years old if it’s a day (and it is). At the foot of Gabriel ‘s soaring bluff, at the end and/or beginning of the Holmes Highway’s cross-Ohiowa journey, sprawls (or “squats like an uneasy toad”­­–yes, Potter again) the city of New Ur of the Chaldees (pop. 123,456), county seat of Madurodam County, East Ohiowa R.C. archdiocesan seat (4 closed and shuttered Polish ex-churches, 2 slated for demolition sometime this week), ex-industrial center (tires, wheels, hubcaps, ceremonial flatware, fireworks) recently depressed as hell but now feeling a little better, thanks, partly because of the recent arrival of Maher Global International Worldwide Intercontinental (or Intercontinental Worldwide), PLC, the Irish real-estate conglomerate, and consequent spinoff businesses such as Austro-Provençal fusion restaurants and Anglo-German car dealerships and Italo-Chinese fashion boutiques and a new, well-endowed, and shapely Irish Studies department at Downstairs State, the local university.

And of course, last and by all means least, it is the venue of the present farce.

More: On the south side of town, just visible from here, is the strange, stony, sylvan Mile-Deep Wood, an old-growth forest as ancient as North America itself, a primeval patch of land—the soil beneath the towering pines, as local rock scientist Bunsen T. Berner noted, is “strewn with boulders, as if they had rained down from the heavens”–inhabited by your standard owls and badgers and skinks and snakes, and a mole or groundhog or two, and also (allegedly) by a fabulous quasi-mythological beast, the Mouseter, said to dwell in the forest’s dankest and darkest depths, near the rusty chain-link fence that encloses the foot of the KNUR radio mast (ca. 1954). Described across the ages by fleeing eyewitnesses as a rodent some three to ten feet in length, with–depending on who’s doing the telling­–one long or two short fangs, red or yellow (or red-and-yellow) eyes, and a treetrunk of a tail (or no tail at all), this beast’s cooperation in disciplining the children of New Ur has been a great boon to generations of overtaxed mothers and aunties. Many a local grew up with the threat of the dreaded Mouseter echoing in his or her ears; and even today your average New Urine will only venture into the Mile-Deep Wood at night armed with trepidation, a case of Boomer beer, and his (or her) trusty .45.

Elsewhere in the region, nipple-mounds, breast-knolls, and buttock-hills undulate across the landscape. Some significant promontories, including the La Belle Salope Rise, can be found north of the city proper, with views of the Shrugging River, which cuts through the southeast section of Madurodam County, flowing northward, while the St. Bolonius River meanders down the northeast section of the county, eventually rushing south through the romantic Tubular Pond (a frequent subject of the canvases of local painter Martin Luther Eisenbahn, “the Midwestern Childe Hassam”) into New Ur proper. Both rivers come together in the center of the city, at scenic Teeny-Tiny Park, one of the nation’s largest city parks, to form the Annatomee River, which flows northeastward beneath the Bold Bridge, eventually emptying into distant tributaries (the Eel, the Wildcat) of the mighty Wabash.

Bluntly put, New Ur of the Chaldees is a typical Midwestern town, with the standard history of the region: Native Indians, Frenchmen (and -women), Englishmen (and -women), Irishmen (and -women), Germans, Serbs, Sorbs, Swedes, steel mills, tire factories, religious revivals, and annual Big Ten basketball. Today, with the arrival of Maher International Global Intercontinental Worldwide (or Worldwide Intercontinental) PLC, and a generous $11 million endowment to Downstairs State University, “the little big city on the prairie,” in the words of the Mayor, Jingleson Blue, “is waking up and stretching her limbs and rubbing the sleep out of her old eyes and looking for a place to have lunch.”

But a lunch of what, His Honor doesn’t say.


 Chapter 3

Helen Hillendale brought Dean Chuck McCantinflas his coffee next morning as they chatted of this and that: the local elections; her mother’s biopsy; his wife’s trip back East to visit her sister in the hospital (new nephew); her problems with her roof; his upcoming barbecue; the new faculty members…

“What’s she like?”

“Striking,” said Helen Hillendale. “She’s actually kind of attractive. But unmistakably a foreigner. The style, you know? Not like modern Americans. More like a silent-screen star. Jean Harlow? No, I know: Louise Brooks.”

The only Brookses Chuck knew were Mel, the sartorial eponymous Brothers, and old Les who ran the local Highland-Dummer dealership downtown; but he said nothing, interpreting Helen’s comment as a compliment.

“You know–pale skin, black hair cut like a flapper, a certain attitude.”

“Attitude, huh? Better watch out.” He sipped his coffee, class ring (Spoonbill State, ’76) glinting.

“Yeah, well. She’s Russian.” Helen said this confidently, as if it explained everything; this, despite her knowing no Russian and little of Russians except what she read in the papers, on the Internet, and saw in the movies. An unsympathetic bunch, by and large, lantern-jawed and unshaven, with log-sized chips on their shoulders, nasty secret police, and a drinking problem.  That was mostly the men, of course. Whether the women, too, were aggressive and hard-drinking she really couldn’t say, but everybody knew that European women didn’t shave their armpits. (Plus, she remembered a character in that TV miniseries Bloodshot Eyes Are Smiling, the one played by Paige Blewett–Natalya? Natasha? Well, it would be something like that, wouldn’t it….? Anyway, that one had a real drinking problem. Drugs, too. Couldn’t deal with men, either, and ended up at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Just went to show.) “You know what they’re like.”

“H’m. Not really. I mean, from the movies I have some idea what they’re like when they’re invading Georgia, or barreling across East Prussia, but on a one-to-one basis, well, not really. I was in Prague once, but I never met any Russians.” He ruminated: ah, Prague, Prague, grand old city on the…the what? Murnau? Olday? Sweet memories, anyway, and entirely false. The closest he’d been was the home of his wife’s ancestors, Moenchenspritz in the Rhineland which, he figured, was Mitteleuropaische enough to have given him a grounding in what made Prague Prague. (This was wrong: too much echt-Deutsch omm-pah-pahing of blaskappellen in beerhalls for that.) The Prague story came out, especially after he’d had a few, but at any old time, really, depending on whom he was talking to (usually women). Because Prague was the in place at the moment, claiming to have been there made him seem seasoned, well-traveled, sophisticated, and progressive, but he was none of those things, except maybe seasoned, like an old dishrag. Furthermore, usually after the third double bourbon, not only had he been in Prague, but when there he’d met Vaclav Havel at the Metropolitan Jazz Club on (he’d Goggled it) Jungmann Street, near the Hradcany castle (the presidential residence, also thoroughly Goggled). They’d drunk Pilsener together, and Chuck even got to jam with Vaclav onstage. (Tenor sax.) Well, he had one thing in common with Havel: he was a playwright, too, although one of dramatically less drama, both onstage–Playing With Legoes, closed after two performances at the New Ur Senior Citizens’ Activity Center–and off–married 22 years, two kids, no more sex.

“And as a teacher, wonder what she’ll be like….? Well, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Mortified at the obviousness of the truism, he lowered his now-empty coffee mug and leaned forward with a show of purposefulness. The morning sun blurted through the blinds and caromed off his class ring as he turned his attention to the online weather forecast.

“Now! Down to work,” he said, sandpapering brisk palms for Helen’s benefit, as she returned to her felinious anteroom. But…work? She knew him better than that.  And he knew she did. But he didn’t care any more. Life wasn’t for caring; it was for enduring. Sure, he was Dean of the Liberal Arts Faculty at Downstairs State University, and it was a good job requiring no work, and he lived in Honey Ham Glade, the exclusive gated development on the edge of Mile-Deep Wood, and he had two wood-panelled Dyana SUVs and a (what was the word?) charming wife (Cindi), as well as Matt and Meghan, a couple kids who were OK but nothing special, except to him and Cindi, of course (and anyway they were away at college in Boston and Providence, or the other way around); but deep down he suspected…no, he knew…that he’d be pushing a lawn mower, or cleaning the shower nozzles at the public baths on Raccoon Street, or enunciating “Are you the President? Am I the President? Who is the President?” to immigrant dimwits at the U-Learn-It Lingo Lab, had it not been for Cindi’s cash and clout, which derived from her being the great-great-great-granddaughter of Hermannstein Weinstockthal von Hinabtreppe, Downstairs State College’s long-bearded Rhenish founder (“Hinabtreppe” meaning “downstairs” auf deutsch), whose spirit was still venerated in the halls and commons of the university and environs, especially on November 1st, Founder’s Day, when Cindi led the procession and lit a candle at her ancestor’s statue in Hinabtreppe Hall, the administration building, as the Tubular City Bisexual Chorus rendered “O Tannenbaum” and “Ich Bin Ein Eselkopf,” two of old Hermannstein’s favorite sentimental tunes from his much-missed Vaterland.

Mind you, Chuck was no mere gold-digger. Like the rest of us, he’d done his fair share of hump-busting while burning the midnight oil­—with, ironically, no intention of ever toiling in the groves of academe. Indeed, under the belt of the one-time freckled red-haired skinny kid from Momsburg, Kan. (pop. 1125-6) were a whole series of thankless jobs–lifeguard, grocery bagger, soda jerk, ladder attendant, vitamin specialist, student impresario–and equally useless college degrees, starting with an MBA (thesis subject: “The Rising Tide of The Amazonian Marketplace”) from Spoonbill State in Aero Plain, Ariz. Ahhhhhhh he reminisced, eyes twinkling loudly; they were hard going but fun, those college days, ahhhh they were that. Spoonbill State’s dry and dusty campus was the cheapest college he could find, and among the worst in the world, with professors on furlough from the state pen and a student body of surly Neo-Nazi gang members who fought battles with sticks and knives with the local Aztlan irredentists. But by gosh he’d had fun there, among the cacti, in the dented Aerostream trailer he named Ahab (he had a stab at a memoir once: A Trailer Named Ahab), boasting buckled, brownish Venetian blinds and coffee-stained linoleum and an old waterbed that hissed at night and a blue plastic transistor radio, snuggled in the foothills of the Sangria mountains next door to Bud’s Bonsai and across Highway 9 from Ed’s Esso: good times, indeed, but they came to an end, round about the time Ed’s Esso became Ed’s Exxon. So, after four years of broads, beer, burgers, and books, and he paid a long unsatisfactory visit to Momsburg, where Mom seemed to be getting ready to abscond with the hardware man, and his dad, manager of the local supermarket and not-so-secret avid gambler (horses, dogs, ponies, NASCAR), was sinking deeper and deeper into debt. Motivated anew by the dreariness of his visit home, Chuck set his sights on the big time: Madison Avenue, New York City. And since God had ordained that there should be supermarkets from sea to shining sea, young Chuck went for the biggest and best: Big Fat Food Stores, no less, its HQ right there in the Pow Building in the middle of midtown Manhattan, on the corner of Madison and 72nd (and 73rd, and again on 74th).

He went; he was turned away.

He applied; he was rejected.

He pleaded; he was mocked.

He wrote letters; they were discarded.

He phoned; he was hung up on.

He knew despair.

So his father grudgingly said he’d put in a few calls, and indeed was heard speaking on the phone with urgent frequency shortly thereafter; but these calls turned out to have been made not to personnel departments in aid of his son’s future but to local bookmakers, loan sharks, bootleggers, apprentice mafiosi, and other nefarious debt-servicing locals on behalf of Dad’s own miserable hide.  Young Chuck was on his own again.

“Curse you, Dad,” he cried from the bar car of the 5:23 from Topeka to Kansas City, shaking his fist at the receding skyline of Momsburg, that hot and steamy day in ’76, with tornadoes on the way. Presto: A twister came and flattened Dad just as he was placing another call, this one to Bannister, the county judge, who owed him $50.

“Bannister? I need those fifty clams. Now.”

In the background howled the tornado, then the line went silent.  Bannister’s eyes narrowed. He took the half-chewed stogie out of his mouth and replaced the receiver.

“Sounds like McCantinflas just bought the farm,” he growled. “Millie, head for the cellar. There’s wine there.”

“That’s because it’s a wine cellar,” saucily (or pertly) replied pert (or saucy) Millie, Bannister’s secretary-cum-paralegal and part-time office squeeze.

Meanwhile, not a million miles away, in fact about ten, Chuck was en route to the future, riding the rails to success and prosperity (or so he hoped). First came a bout of heavy drinking, as it was slowly becoming clear that Booze was his Muse. Then a stint in the Army that required him to carry an unloaded gun up and down a muddy hillside in West Virginia innumerable (37) times, then spend 18 months cleaning washbasins at a nondescript base in North or South Dakota.

“Whew,” said Spec. 1 McCantinflas, and promptly took his G.I. Bill and cashed it in at Purdue, where he became an All-Big-Tencenter and All-American honorable mention and whence, by dint of strapping his nose to the old grindstone, he emerged in two years with a doctorate in Supermarket History.

“Congratulations, Chet,” said the college president.  “But you won’t get a job with that degree, believe you me.”

“That’s Chuck, sir.”


In fact, Chuck did get a job, not at Big Fat Foods, but the one he got was an abject failure nonetheless: adjunct assistant associate manager of the vitamin aisle at Bucktooth’s Pharmacy in St. Louis.  He soon handed in his resignation and moved back to Momsburg, where dear old Mom, despite having taken up cigarillos, was in fine form, especially since Dad’s removal by that tornado.

“Need a job, Ma,” said Chuck. “Real bad.”

“Nah,” drawled Mom. “Nobody needs a job, honey. Jobs are for losers. That’s why they got unemployment benefits. Here, you can have some of mine.”

“I don’t smoke cigars, Ma.”

“I meant my unemployment benefits, silly.”

“Oh ma.”

Chuck moped for a few months after that.

“Hey, man, say la vee,” said Vince, his old Army buddy, down at the Tilting Teapot. “Hey, spot me ten? Hey, ma-a-a-a-a-a-a-n, just ‘coz you’re a doctor....”

All this had Chuck feeling quite useless. He tried out for a few football teams; alas, a torn  knee cartilage soon put paid to any further gridiron ambitions. Bum-mer! He taught English for awhile at the U-Learn-A-Lingo Lab, repeating idiotic phrases like “Are you my mother? Am I your mother?” over and over, mostly to no avail­—although one student of his, a Brazilian named Erfert, did learn enough English to join the sales team at the local Hamadryad automobile dealership. On the other hand, the dealership promptly went out of business, as did the U-Learn-It Lingo Lab. Times were bad. Briefly, Chuck cleaned the showers in the town’s Turkish Bath, which soon also closed, or rather was closed down, on the grounds of insufficient monitoring of unhygienic social activities in the establishment’s sole toilet stall (unisex, mostly anal) (not Chuck). But these setbacks, and life’s greedy absurdity, only whetted Chuck’s ambition to succeed—without too much effort. Then, one day, over a tuna salad sandwich and a diet root beer spiked with Jack (then just coming into vogue), he was scanning the classifieds in Aisle Six, the supermarket trade newspaper, when he came upon an advert for a managerial position at Hole Foods in New Ur of the Chaldees, Ohiowa–the near-birthplace, as coincidence would have it, of his grandmother, Oma Hegelius, who was actually born in Breslau, Silesia, but was whisked away at age two to fair Ohiowa, via Hamburg-America Line and the Burlyman & Central RR.

“WANTED,” blared the ad. “Managerial position candidate for Hole Foods subsidiary in New Ur of the Chaldees, Ohiowa. Apply in person at No. 12345, Judith Fowler Boulevard, or by surface mail to Cindi Hinabtreppe, Human Resources, 123456 Judith Fowler Boulevard, e-mail….”

It was fertile country up around New Ur, he’d heard, mostly from Oma, and scenic, with rolling hills and so on, populated by fine farming stock. “Up there, the men,” boomed Oma late one Saturday night over a corncob pipe and a hand of poker, “they are strong, and the women, they are good-looking, ja? Hey, junge. Kann ich ein bisschen mal schnapps haben? Nein? Warum nicht? Scheisskopf! Arschgesicht! Affenschwanz! Mögest du ewig in der Hölle schmoren!” …

               Too, family lore had it that giant mice lurked in the woods, that the ghosts of French explorers were all around, and that there was a short cut to the Northwest Passage just behind the municipal waterworks. All in all, New Ur was a place of history and dreams, and it sure beat the heck out of Momsburg, Kan., now that Mom had switched to Malay cheroots and taken up with a coat-hanger salesman named Brett (or Brad). So Chuck, undaunted, applied for the job.

He got it.

AND he met Cindi and fell in love; and she, incredibly, apparently did likewise, at least at first, with him. Dwindling into the sterile and costive buffoonery of old age, he found the long-past role of Chuck McCantinflas, paramour, an unlikely imposture, so he never did figure out what made her fall for him: his bon-bons? His biceps? His bons mots?

Anyway, she lost no time in leaving the silly supermarket job that was so much beneath her own perception of her abilities.

“I hate supermarkets,” she said, “except for buying things.”

“Me too,” cooed Chuck, lovesick lovebird.

So they married and set about having kids: first Matt, then Meghan. Then Chuck was fired from Hole Foods for gross indifference to groceries, and Cindi got herself made chairperson of the Downstairs State Foundation, thanks to one or two judicious “donations” from managers of the Hinabtreppe Trust, of whom she was one. Meanwhile, unwilling to be thoroughly unemployed, Chuck started Chuck’s Lawn Service, a couple of rusty old lawnmowers and weed-eaters and Nestor and Eusebio, itinerant Mexican workers of dubious legality. Cindi, humiliated at the sight of her husband driving around town in an old pickup truck with two brown men in tank tops who were so flagrantly foreign, bribed the Foundation with a disguised “contribution” and reported Nestor and Eusebio to the INS. The hombres were deported to the Tortuga Bridge between Chalupas, NL, and Oil Pass, Tex., muttering threats of venganza; Chuck’s Lawn Service dissolved into the mists of history. But hey! Chuck didn’t care. He turned right around and walked into a job as Assistant Dean of the Liberal Arts Faculty, with a big office and everything, even a secretary (Helen Hillendale, cat and computer person). Coincidentally, the Dean soon moved on, enticed by a fulsome retirement package (later, he was lost in the Mile-Deep Wood, leaving behind only gnawed remains), and Chuck moved in.

Well, after that he never looked back, and for awhile his conscience was clear, but as the years went by he felt something behind him catching up slowly but surely. Like–as the man said–one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread, and having once turned round walks on and turns no more his head, because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.

Or words to that effect.

(The fiend’s name? Failure.)



Chapter 4

Tom Waddles, just-arrived visiting writer-in-residence in Downstairs State’s budding Creative Writing MFA program, was scheduled to read from his dialectical novel Aubergines at the Horned Rim Bookstore on Waistline Lane. The store’s manager, Sherry Romanov, a Mod Lit postgrad at Downstairs State, was languidly counting the chairs and wishing the whole thing were over. Despite studying postdeconstructionism, she  actually read the odd novel herself, many of them very odd,  Proust included, and many of the others British for some reason (Greene, Waugh, Pym, that kind of thing), but mostly she couldn’t see the point, with real life all around: escapism, probably, American novels being so much closer to home, in more ways than one.

But she knew her Proust, all right. She’d gone all the way through the seven volumes, in Scott Moncrieff’s translation, by the time she was twelve, and again before she turned thirteen. This was one of the many factors that drove her father to drink and, ultimately, into the streets. But she couldn’t help herself: She adored her Marcel. Her doctoral thesis was called “Taste-Testing With Marcel and Madeleine: A Proustian Debacle.”

Oy, oy, oy, vey ist mir,” as Marcel’s Jewish grandmother might say.

Still! A fairly good turnout was anticipated that evening, especially for an English writer who wrote in Yorkshire dialect. Weedy theoreticians and armchair adventurers from the university English Department, plus the usual self-published local memoirists, failed poets, and multisexed singles on the prowl, could be expected to attend. Mr. Waddles was already there. Sherry had recognized him not from his blurred and outdated publicity photo but from the unmistakable air of Britishness broadcast by his blotchy complexion and uneven teeth, the mud-brown parka with leather buttons in which he was encased, and the standard-issue NHS glasses of a style not worn stateside since the early 1970s, except by Black Muslims and Southern white trash.

At the moment he was being very (rather than veddy) British just outside the store, having a nervous second cigarette (Duncan-Combs Dual-Filter) in the parking lot behind a huge gleaming 4X4 Nexus-Pollard SUV that would really, he mused, cheese off the greenies back home. Funny: He already missed home, which he constantly disparaged when there, which he was most of the time, bar the odd trip to the Dordogne or Paris or, once, Italy, on a Stiles grant. But it was great fun to be in the States, too, especially as a published novelist. Public events were still a new factor in his life; he’d only done three of these gigs so far, all in England (one in London, two in Yorkshire), but it had become enough of a routine to familiarize him with all the usual symptoms of stage fright–sweating, palpitations, and an urgent desire to vanish–until the point at which the actual reading started. Then he would suddenly feel as if he had stepped across the threshold into a world where he was in sole and serene command.

Which, of course, he was, especially since most of his writing was in the Yorkshire Dales dialect called Tyke, spoken by no more than 1,000 people in the Dales but supported financially by the Home Office’s Special Minorities MiniFund. Tom Waddles was grateful for the support. Indeed, he was grateful for anything that wasn’t a swift kick in the arse.  Born and bred in the South Homesdale township of Hutton-le-Hole, where his dad was the manager of the local Earwicker’s brewery and his mum wrote a nature column for Dales Diary, Tom (B.A. South Leeds University, ’89) at first bid fair to spend all his life as a secondary-school language and grammar teacher and unknown and unpublished writer, with three dense fiction manuscripts with storylines, such as they were, lifted from Proust– Bloodman, The Bridge of Thighs, and Aubergines. Theybounced from publisher to publisher and notched a pretty spectacular tally of 417 rejections, despite the unstinting efforts of his agent, Nuala Bernard Shaw of Russell Square, W.C.1: 137 thumbs down for Aubergines alone. Finally, after a series of lackluster years, part of which Tom spent in Paris trying to pass as a French intellectual (and succeeding only from a distance), Gwyn, a bored editor at the botanical publisher Higher Greenery Press of Havisham, Kent, who also happened to be the neighbor and paramour of Nuala’s widowed mum, a well-known TV botanist, said:

“Oh, all right.”

But added, hastily:

“But never again, mind.”

He even offered a small advance, sufficient for a few curries and a weekend in Boulogne, but probably not Bologna. And he warned of a very small press run.

“How small? Five? Ten?”

“Haha,” chortled Gwyn, grimly. “You think you’re joking. Maybe a hundred at most. I should warn you, I like it in parts but folk’ll think it very difficult, like bloody Proust or something.”

They did; Gwyn was right. Twenty copies were sold. One chilly review appeared, in the Harrogate Merchantman (“who does he think he is, Marcel flaming Proust?”). Nuala fretted and threatened to abandon ship.

“Oh honestly, Tom, it’s not that you’re a bad writer, you aren’t, you’re quite wonderful in parts, but why do you have to be so damned dense?”

Tom said nothing, preferring not to elucidate the close similarities between his work and Proust’s, similarities quite striking if one were to analyze them closely. Of course, no one did so long as he remained at the bottom (or top) of the list of the world’s most obscure authors, but then, thanks to one of those surprise interventions of Fate that make life seem so fictitious, his professional life took off. While participating as one fifth of a panel of five deeply obscure Yorkshire authors on an episode of the late-night Dales TV literary talk show Buk Burnin,’ dedicated to mockery of the life and work of contemporary novelists–in the event, the late Freddiedale novelist Upton Dyke–Tom was struck on the head by a Fresnel lantern that fell from the overhead batten, mishandled by an uncoordinated and soon-sacked lighting coordinator. The video clip of the incident, plus sneering voice-over by an up-and-coming reality-TV star, became a  sensation on MeTube websites: Waddles is first seen sitting at a sharp angle, as if trying to pull away from the rest of the company, on the far right of the semicircle of literary participants plus host (Clem Budgie), ignored by all while enduring, with his colleagues and the viewers, the braying voice of Lewis Bowells, Professor of Book Reading at Strangeways University and author of Pathetic Fallacy in the Twentieth Century: A Study of Changing Relations Between Emetic and Emotion–who for some reason apparently feels obliged to exaggerate the late Dyke’s talents–when a loud crack is heard, all heads save Waddles’s look up, a voice (not Bowells’s–he drones on) calls, “Watch out!” and an immense wire-trailing metal-and-glass object, the Fresnel, whacks Waddles in mid-cranium and crashes to the floor, sending him first lurching, then flying, forward, arms outstretched toward the camera, with a droll pop-eyed expression on his face, while in the background three of the other four obscure authors start nervously to their feet and look upward for further incoming missiles as Professor Bowells, oblivious, shakes open a pair of reading glasses, places them athwart his nose, and proceeds to declaim from a long-forgotten essay of his re: the influence of Socialist Realism on the novels of Upton Dyke. At this point the host, Budgie, reappears from stage left; loth to interrupt the great man, he nevertheless makes tentative hushing gestures with both hands, as if fanning away a noxious smell. In a rare instance of authorial solidarity Waddles is carried out, head lolling, by two of the other writers. Professor Bowells suddenly looks up with an expression of apprehension on his face. Fade to black.

But Waddles was a writer, so of course it took him no time at all–an hour or two of head-throbbing consciousness at the most–to realize the commercial potential of a combination of public embarrassment and the Internet. As soon as the medical team at West Priestleydale General Hospital pronounced his concussion over and discharged him with a hefty bandage on his noggin and strict instructions not to touch alcohol for at least a week, well, all right, three days, he went straight to the Hogshead, had two pints of Earwicker’s, ordered another plus short one on the side, and called tireless Nuala in London.

She was way ahead of him. There’d been, she exulted, 1,816,000 hits on the MeTube video in the first five hours.

“It’s a sensation, Tom. Nothing like it since the one of Deepat Chaudry at the laundrette. When he got his head stuck in the washing machine?”

“Entire upper body, wasn’t it? I have this distinct vision of him half swallowed up by the thing, like a goat by a python, legs kicking. Bloody embarrassing, anyway.”

“As was your experience. But don’t forget, Chaudry’ s next book, The Utterly Thin Man of Uttar Pradesh? It stayed on the Timbercrest bestseller list for nine weeks, and you and I both know the readership for it otherwise would have been Chaudry and his missus, if that. No, a little public embarrassment is what it takes. Remember what dear Oscar said….”

Oh yes, dear Oscar. She always said that instead of “Oscar Wilde” or plain “Wilde,” because Wilde was a flamer and Nuala, being a London liberal, was infinitely tolerant of sexual deviants and Third Worlders. Not that Tom had anything against; after all, he had spent time in the cosmopolitan cafes of the Left Bank. Just not an awful lot for, absent empirical evidence.

“The only thing worse than being talked about….”

“Is not being talked about. Got it.”

“But just think:  a million eight hundred thousand more people have heard of you this morning than had heard of you at this time yesterday. That’s the population of Greater Birmingham. There were articles in the Telegram and Centre City Confidential.”

“But will that help Aubergines?”

“Leave it to me.”

Those were the most welcome words in the English language, when spoken by a dynamite agent like Nuala. Sure enough, within days, thanks to lunchtime connections and a quickie in an Islington bedsit, she’d managed to post the MeTube video on the three most prominent book blogs: BookInsect; Lit Up; and Panting Book Person. Links were established between her web site and the book sections of eminent journals. Waddles appeared on another talk show, Inverted Commas, amid much hearty banter relating to loose cannons; dangling overhead lights–sorry, modifiers; “oops, thar she blows”; etc. All very unamusing, but a week later the print run of Aubergines was doubled, then trebled, after a review appeared in the Octogon comparing Waddles’ work to “the mature work of Philip Hotshott” and “the early whatsit.” A London radio station interviewed him over the phone. He discovered with some degree of apprehension that he was being packaged as the “46-year-old Yorkshire Proust” (or “Prowst,” depending on the interviewer’s degree of literacy).

“I’m 46 and I’ve never even read bloody Proust,” he said down at the Hogshead.

“Oh aye?”

“Well, not all the way through anyway.”

“Oh aye?”

“Well, all right, everything except Albertine disparue.”

“Tha’s what?”

“Never mind. Same again?”

“Oh aye.”

Incredibly, a check arrived: £125. Tom bought a CD of Sibelius symphonies, a twelve-pack of Bulger’s, and a necktie displaying a Highland sheep. Then, after a frothy rave in Knightsbridge by Night by Piers-Peter Pears-Porter, who was well known for being perfectly sober when he wasn’t stoned to the gills, Mansion House bought the rights to Aubergines from Higher Greenery Press and contracted to publish Bloodman and The Bridge of Thighs, “with a little judicious tweaking here and there, nothing major.”

“Let ‘em tweak away,” said Tom to Nuala. “Load of incomprehensible rubbish anyway.”

“That’s why they love it.”

“But it’s total rubbish.”

“Now that’s very Yorkshire of you but it’s not how I want the Yorkshire Proust to talk.”

“Oh, bugger Proust.”

“One hears it’s been done.”

He had two sparsely attended book signings in Yorkshire, then one, better attended, in London near the Albert Hall and, more importantly, the Red Lion pub, where he spent a couple of hours with Nuala and her boring boyfriend Tariq, who, boringly, didn’t drink. Then he took the Tube out to Deptford and had six pints of Miles Standish IPA plus shorts at a hole-in-the-wall pub called The Hole in the Wall and played darts with the local team and ended up upstairs with Bridie, the Wednesday barmaid who was a social worker on the other weekdays.

“Oooh, it’s fun, innit,” squealed Bridie, one of the few genuine Cockneys extant.

A couple days later, a mostly positive review by the influential critic Una Blow appeared in The Thing Literary–”Waddles’s prose is thick and chewy but well-seasoned, like a well-aged side of Yorkshire beef”–and the visiting-writer-in-residence offer arrived from Downstairs State University.

“As a distinguished British author, you would be a great asset….” it began, causing Tom to wonder if he were still drunk, or had lost his mind. But a month later there he was, in the middle of bloody Middle America, with a job at a state university and a book signing and all.

“Aye, lad,” he said to himself in the darkening car park outside the Horned Rim Bookshop, flicking away his second fagend under the great gleaming 4X4. “It’s a bloody rum old life, ‘tis that.” In this he was quoting his Dad verbatim, and even added a phlegmy cough for verisimilitude (poor old sod, all he knew was hops and barley and Yorkshire cricket); then, stressing the second syllable of his name, à l’américaine, came a lady’s voice from the gloaming.

“Mr. Waddells?”

The illuminated bookshop door framed a female silhouette just this side of plump. Rather nice, he thought, then he recognized Sherry Romanov, the manager of the bookshop; not bad looking by any means, with great American teeth of blinding white, but still a female type common to the academic/intellectual class on both sides of the pond: not quite (or not entirely) lesbian, but not entirely pro-man, either. The chip-on-the-shoulder kind who tried to make you feel guilty right off, without knowing anything about you, just because you were a bloke. Of course, this one, as the manager of the bookshop, had set up the event, and presumably knew quite a lot about him, or at least as much as Nuala had seen fit to disseminate. The basic c.v., really, not that anyone could suss out much from that: “Born in Hutton-le-Hole, Yorkshire, 1959. . . educated at Cleavings School, Hartleygate . . . graduated in French from the University of South Leeds . . . studied for a maitrise at Uni Jacques Martin Paris VII….Piker-award winning first published short story, ‘ Gas Gran’s Gasogene,’ in Glintings, Vol. 4, No. 11, 1988 . . . won 1994 Stiles grant to study the stories of Ignazio Lomazzi at Federico Po University in Periscopo, Italy . . . first novel, Aubergines, published by Mansion House, 1997. . . divorced, two children . . . ., ” etc.

And the rest was, etc.

It was eight o’clock. Waddles mounted the podium, sat through Sherry’s biographical intro, which turned out to be identical to the press release, minus correct pronunciation (“Waddells“; “Hutton Lee Hollow”; “studied for a mattress”) and, when she’d done, stood up and opened his special first-proof reading copy of Aubergines from which yellow stick-it notes bloomed like buttercups. Thirty or more red plastic chairs, of which no more than ten were occupied, had been arranged at the back of the store in rows. On the lectern sat a bottle of water and a microphone requiring the usual juggling to eliminate feedback. His audience stared at him as if he had a horn growing out of his forehead. But then he was, after all, a) a novelist and b) British.

He read from Chapter One, in which the narrator’s mum (Doreen) fusses over dinner invitations, and where we learn of the quiet transformation of a bloke, not from Yorkshire, called Forcheville. He started the reading in Yorkshire Tyke.

“Doreen, worried abaht avin ‘Nutter’ Basingstoke ta tee fert fust tahhm, sez shi was soz ‘a’ Mr. Swann wor away, ‘n ‘a’ shi ‘erself nivva saw Forcheville, sin eitha o’ these fellows meight av ‘elped ta enterteean owd ‘Nutta,’ but the Dad say….”

An uneasy shifting from the audience reminded him that few if any would be speakers of Dales Tyke, so he backed up and resumed in more-or-less standard English.

Doreen, worried about having ‘Nutter’ Basingstoke to tea for the first time, said she was sorry that Mr. Swann was away, and that she herself never saw Forcheville, since either of these fellows might have helped to entertain old ‘Nutter.’ But Dad said that Swann was always great fun but that Forcheville was an old gossip that Mr. Charlus down the pub had once referred to as—            in his    own words—a ‘right   fucking dickhead and  thundering great horse’s arse,’ and no doubt would do       so           again.”

Doubtful titters rippled hither and yon. Tom remembered an outburst at the London reading; an old chap’s whoops of excessive laughter had been the catalyst for a bone-jarring, chest-deep coughing fit necessitating, after it became impossible to ignore, the advent of medics, plus stretcher, oxygen tank, and ironic cries of “Give that man a fag.” But New Ur listeners were quieter, being no doubt healthier as well, as Yanks were, or were depicted as. He went on for awhile longer.

“Now, Dad’s attitude might strike you as odd, because most of us remember Swann as a right twit and Forcheville as a really gas bloke, modest and helpful and always rallying round with advice and/or just the right amount of nicker. He knew how to keep his head down at the right time, too.           So what happened, you ask? Well, what happened was this. Quite simple, really.  Alongside the original ‘good old Forcheville,’ and the round-buying Forcheville  of the Warden’s Arms, a new persona (not to be his last) had sprung out, fully fashioned, like Athena from the brow of Zeus: Forcheville, husband of Odette.  And Odette, as we all know, was a thoroughgoing bloody cow.”

“So British,” exclaimed an aging but girlish Spandex-wearing lady in the front row, for whom (an avid fan, with her husband, of the Miss Wobbles TV series) the Britishness was all; what was supposed to be going on hardly mattered, although she’d somehow managed to struggle through the first 90 pages (out of 430). When Tom closed his book and looked up, she applauded the loudest and made her way to the lectern bearing like an offering her copy of Aubergines.

“Are you from Yorkshire?”

“Yes, I am.” He resisted saying, “Aye, lass,” sensing the soul of a collector.

“Could you make it ‘To Bill’?”

“Certainly. I take it that’s not you…?”

She smiled vacantly.

“That’s B-I-L-L.”

“Oh. Is that how…? Good. Thanks. There you go.”

She stared at the dedication, then at him.

“Where are you from in Yorkshire?”

“Ah. Place called ah. Hutton-le-Hole. Near Leeds.”

“Oh,” she said, miming a shiver of ecstasy, “Leeds,” as if he’d said “Samarkand” or “Rio de Janeiro.” “I’d love to go there someday.” Then, with another spacey stare, she flitted off, fluttering fingers in fey farewell.

“Oh, aye,” self-muttered Tom.

After signing four more dedications, to Edie, Marcus, Trey, and Kimberley Mac, and feeling that aimless sensation that so often accompanies the end of a book signing, when the stragglers stand around staring at the great man, not quite sure how to keep him under surveillance – without committing themselves to, say, buying a round – Tom was ready for a pint, or pints.  So, when the audience had finally drifted off (although a couple were still loitering near the door of the shop, glancing uncertainly in his direction) and he and Sherry the manager were alone at the back of the shop, she rearranging things such as chairs and unsold books, he inquired about suitable places to sit down and knock ’em back, imagining a homey Midwestern bar with a jukebox, patronized by sturdy Midwesterners of Polish and German extraction, such as could be seen in the TV drama Overalls. (Sheila, his ex, had loved that series; indeed, the burly appeal of its star, Judd Novak, and their neighbor in the Dordogne’s resemblance thereto, had played no small part in the collapse of the 10-year Waddles marriage.)

“I don’t drink much,” said Sherry, with high-minded irrelevance. He looked downcast. She relented. “But there’s the Dew Drop Inn, out on the Fort Dean Highway. Popular with one and all.” When pressed, she allowed as how she might show him the way, or even take him there herself. After all, he was a visiting British novelist, and for the moment quite famous, thanks to MeTube.

She put on a multicolored beret kind of thing and a black coat and white scarf and handed a set of keys to a mole-bedecked young man with long unwashed hair who looked at Tom with awe.

“Very cool,” he said. “Your stuff reminds me of Proust. The French writer? Lot of French names in it. Or maybe that’s typical of Yorksherr. Or should I say Shy-er?”

On the way to the bar, in Sherry’s run-down Helmut Trivia GL, in which the front passenger seat tipped forward every time she hit the brakes, bringing Tom’s head perilously close to the windscreen–something she made sure to do as often as possible, Tom couldn’t help noticing–her conversational gambit was to deliberately not show any interest at all in him as a citizen of the United Kingdom, a human being, a writer, or a man. Not that she wasn’t tempted; it was just more important, she thought, to avoid misinterpretation, mixed signals, that kind of thing. You never knew, with a certain kind of guy. Especially a British guy who like rewrote Proust in dialect. She remembered that awful Miles person who’d come over to teach Gender History for a semester while Penn, the Gender chair, was out making headlines with her and Fran’s in vitro triplets; “gender is as gender does” was one of his less offensive remarks, and it only went downhill from there, and how she ended up face down under him on his couch that night she still couldn’t fathom…

“They do pretty good shepherd’s pie, at the Dew Drop,” she said, slowing down for an intersection. Tom tilted forward, then fell back with a thud.

“Good thing the seat belts work,” he said.

“Of course, the bartender’s Irish, I think. Yes, I’m sure he is. He used to be a professor at the university but decided there were more interesting people in bars.”

“Sounds a bit like an Irish joke.”
They shortly arrived at the Dew Drop Inn, a long, low brick building with narrow windows in which red-and-white neon signs winked “Sudbuster’s” and “Boomer’s Pale Ale.” It looked quite a bit like the kind of working-class pub you might find in one of the grottier parts of Leeds, like Harehills or Chapeltown, he mused. Odd, how America could look fleetingly like England. Then you remembered before pushing the parallels too far: it was a big foreign country where they spoke a variant of English and thought all Englishmen were toffs or poofs. Despite macho types like Rodge Stuart and Marvin Bagg, not to mention Finn Albertus, Mick Mauricewhite,  Craig Daniels, Seamus Connolly, and Jagg Micker.

And Charles Dickens, of course.

And himself.

“Here you are.”

Sherry did nothing that might indicate an intention to join him in a drink, such as turning off the car or removing her seat belt. She just half-looked at him with a pensive (or sardonic) half-smile.

“Aren’t you coming in, then?”

“Can’t. Bookstore to run.”

“But you handed over your keys to that chap. Guy. With the long hair.”

“Yeah, well.  I’m not sure he knows what he’s doing.” She licked her lips. “He’s a would-be novelist, you see.”

“I take it you’re not.”

“Heavens, no. I was a lit major.”

But novelists are lit majors, too, and the best of them are generals, Tom forbore to say, avoiding for once the boring but irresistible old argument What is art? Or rather, What is literature? Or just a good book? He felt fairly strongly about the subject, actually, but there were no dividends in getting all humorless and didactic about it when you were trying to impress a woman. And he was, of course. He couldn’t help himself, brewer’s droop and all.

“Sounds just like something we could discuss in a civilized fashion over a drink in there.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

It was an elaborate charade, her show of reluctance, he could see that, which in turn suggested that she was playing a game, and what game could that be but the oldest one, of man vs. woman and vice versa?

“Oh, all right.” Her shoulders slumped, as after great physical effort. She took the key out of the ignition and glanced at her watch. “But just a quick one, OK?”


He wasn’t sure he was quite ready for this, all jet-lagged and fagged out that he was. But let it never be said that Tom Waddles missed a chance at a quick one, whatever it might be.



Roger Boylan’s novel Killoyle was published in 1997 by Dalkey Archive Press. In 2003, Grove Press published a sequel, The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad. Both novels were translated into German. The third volume in the Killoyle trilogy, The Maladjusted Terrorist, was published in German in 2007. Boylan is a regular contributor to Boston Review’s New Fiction Forum, and his stories, reviews, and articles have appeared in many journals and reviews, including The New York Times Book Review and The Economist. He has recently completed a memoir, Run Like Blazes and the novel, Ohiowa Impromptu.