Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Old Gods Done Gone

Josef always remembered the first time he really read a book. It was the summer before his freshman year of college, and he lived with four roommates in an apartment behind a strip mall. He had found a job doing floors for a local remodeling company, work that required him to spend long shifts over a buffer, or on his hands and knees scraping glue. The work began at the crack of dawn and ended with the heat of the day, around two in the afternoon. By the time Josef got home he was dirty and exhausted, totally spent, at a time when most working people were returning from lunch. The one caveat was that his roommates belonged to this group, so Josef had some time alone at home everyday. He enjoyed this solitude; company had never suited him for long, as he had trouble relating to people. The afternoons were a welcome respite from noise and distractions. Josef didn’t care for noise. Since childhood he’d read books in his free time, nothing serious, usually fantasy or sci-fi. He particularly loved books that ran into long series, long enough to get attached to. As time passed his tastes matured – from R. L. Stine to R.A. Salvatore he graduated to Tolkien and Moorcock – but his reason for reading remained the same, to pass the time.
One day, after having returned home and showered, Josef found himself on the couch with nothing to do. He had finished the last of the Moorcock books he brought from home and had realized with the last one that he was predicting the plot from chapter to chapter. Bored with the clich├ęs of sword and sorcery bullshit, he was ready for something new. A list of titles scrolled through his head, but nothing inspired him to jump out of his seat. After a careful tabulation of all the books that he thought he someday ‘might’ read, Josef decided to throw caution to the wind and go for a browse.
The only bookstore he knew of was a large, centrally located Barnes and Noble. After a brief search for parking, he was comfortably inside, perusing the shelves. He first stopped to visit his old flame, science fiction. His eyes roved over shelf after shelf of familiar territory, and nothing caught his eye. He pulled a few books out of habit and recognized the same story repackaged again and again. With a sigh of frustration, Josef turned and headed to the Fiction section.
Josef’s experience with “adult” fiction was somewhat limited. In high school he had read the required classics but wasn’t inspired by a single one, and in fact hated more than a few of them. As he walked down the crowded aisles he recognized a few of these, sprinkled among a galaxy of unfamiliar books. Growing frustrated, he decided to purchase something by an author whose last name began with the same letter as his own, and accordingly headed over to the Ms. Josef started at the beginning and read each title slowly to himself, tracing them with his fingers and rolling them on his tongue. He stopped at one that immediately appealed to him: Tropic of Cancer. Josef was a Cancer, after all. With a shrug and a feeling of adventure, he pulled it off the shelf and made his purchase.
Later that afternoon, having returned to the apartment, Josef made himself comfortable on the couch and cracked the book open. The first lines slithered into his ears like a whisper from a few feet away. Intrigued, he read more, the impression growing stroner with each word that he was not reading but hearing, the spoken sounds of a measured and congenial cadence. Syllables rang out to fall on his brain like a shower of coins, each a singular sensation, yet all bound together by the rhythm of a speaker whose accent spattered the page, imbuing dead letters with the warm tones of a living Brooklyn brogue. Stunned, Josef had to tear himself away. He felt a warm sensation in his chest, akin to what one feels after a pleasant encounter with a stranger. A slight smile adorning his face, Josef returned to the pages, and remained glued to them until his roommates returned. As they walked in the door he stood, closed the book, and went to a coffeeshop.
It took him a few days to identify what it was that attracted him to Tropic of Cancer. He eventually realized that it was the presence of ideas, real, live, original ideas, around which the text sparked and drew breath. Comparing it to the books he had read previously – in a past life, it seemed – he saw no similarity beyond the physical. The former was weighty, a physical product born of sweat and effort, so real and honest that Josef wanted to buy it a drink. The latter were nothing, mere entertainments, like Saturday morning cartoons. After this epiphany Josef never again saw the cartoons for other than what they were. His reading expanded from Henry Miller outward, in a great arc tat became a voracious pursuit of true writing, honesty on the printed page. He found Durrell, Nin, Hamsun, and Thoreau; then the Russians, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, and Pushkin. Unsated he moved on, seeking the wisdom of his homeland in Emerson, Melville, and the messianic Whitman. Coming to terms with himself, he found guidance in Camus, Nietzsche, Plato, and Sartre. His soul was humbled before the brute force of Durante Alighieri. Nabokov taught him of beauty’s elusive nature. And in the form of Shakespeare he was impressed, as a late convert, with a model whose greatness was beyond all comprehension. Josef found in books everything he missed in the world around him, and saw them as the idyllic creations of men and women convinced of the existence of beauty, if only within themselves. As his eyes grew accustomed to bearing witness to the fruits of creation, Josef began to wonder if he, too, could fashion something wonderful. He began to dream of a life as a writer, and despite an uninterrupted series of abandoned attempts, even came to see himself as one. Having entered university on a pre-pharmacy track, at the beginning of his sophomore year he switched his major to English.
Countless hours spent in fluorescent classrooms taught Josef a few things about literature – namely, that no one cared about it. It struck him that his fellow English majors only infrequently performed the reading assignments, rarely understood what they read, and never said anything original or thought-provoking. Every once in awhile he would encounter a kindred spirit, though often the person’s preoccupation with literature would reveal itself as no more than a hobby born of pretense. Professors mumbled their way through lectures memorized by rote, seemingly no more thrilled with their surroundings than the frat boys. After class, Josef would watch them scurry out of the classrooms towards their offices, like displaced hermit crabs. He pictured them behind locked doors, huddled over computer screens, masturbating as they agonized over apostrophes.
The books are what educated Josef. He chose courses with interesting titles, like “Banned Books and Novel Ideas,” or “Time and Memory in the European Novel.” Through them he was exposed to writers he had only vaguely heard of, and the assignments instilled in him a discipline that strove to find something worthwhile in even the most maudlin texts. It wasn’t until his Junior year that he tried seriously to write, having enrolled in a short story workshop. He found quickly that he lacked enthusiasm, starting many pieces, but finishing few. He found a solution in the form of amphetamines, and became an enthusiastic tweeker. He would stay up for nihts on end, for the benefit of his writing, he would tell himself. There always came a moment, though, when the words stopped making sense to him, and he would spend small eternities agonizing over single sentences. Josef finally gave up the drugs because they exhausted him, and because he realized that his writing no longer belonged to him; he could lay no rightful claim to something born outside of him. Time passed, and writing became a mundane task, a chore done in the shadow of a remembered euphoria. As graduation neared he wrote less and read more, convincing himself that he only needed more instruct, more inspiration, before he could begin to write. The piles of books grew larger, the lines remained frozen, always tripped up in conception, never falling onto the page. At a loss, no victim to a vague unease, Josef decided to become a teacher.
The first day of Mister Josef’s English IV was an exercise in futility. The lecture he had prepared with love and insight fell upon ears still ringing with the sounds of summer. Undeterred, Josef prepared a challenging, thought-provoking lesson plan to follow up the initial reading assignment. Again, he was disappointed. The scene of his disenchantment was a small, well-appointed classroom, blessed with large bay windows and plenty of natural light.
“Alright class, who can tell me the dominant theme from the reading?”
The pampered products of private education sat uneasily shifting in their chairs.
Our hero fingered his notes enthusiastically, sweating, a spore of anticipation.
Silence. A pencil rolls off a desk.
“Okay . . . who has done the reading?”
Silence. A boy in the back snickers, flashing braces, black curls peeking from under a knit cap. Josef’s blood runs cold.
“Okay,” he says, voice shaking, notes held like an offering. “Let’s take twenty minutes so everyone can read.”
And so the days passed. Josef quickly realized that the only way to get the kids to read was to quiz them at the beginning of every class. He remembered hating professors for employing the same tactic. The first few weeks were rough, as he sought to fuel the class with the energy of students ignited by true engagement with the material. It was hopeless, though; lured into passivity by video games and television, unused to employing their minds for anything other than observational purposes, the children had lost the ability for original interpretative thought. Josef was forced to realize that the solution to a dull classroom lay not in them, but in him. Soon he was teaching on topics that interested him, and his excitement rubbed off on his class. The quarter on Dante’s Inferno threatened to flounder early on, when Josef attempted to lead discussions on thematic interpretation; however, once he began leading them through it line by line, taking on the role of tour guide and performer, the kids became entranced, falling into the comfortable role of audience. After awhile, when grading essays, Josef began to recognize two and three sentence progressions taken exactly from his lectures. He felt flattered.
Josef soon became the favorite teacher at the school, loved for his energy and sense of humor, and idolized for his ability to communicate complex literature and concepts in a way understandable for every student. He basked in his reputation as resident intellectual, and pushed himself relentlessly in a quest to make English the favorite subject of every student. The years passed quickly in a haze of research and academic writing on the material he taught; while he never shared his essays with anyone, he found them indispensable for keeping things organized in his head. Vacations were skipped, 40 hour workweeks flouted, all in his endless drive to “get prepared.” Josef’s own knowledge of literature ballooned; there was hardly an author he hadn’t sampled, a concept or term he’d not heard of. He took to attending conferences, taking detailed notes so as to return and teach a quarter on a specific writer, flooding the students with as much information as anyone would need for a nuanced understanding of a literary work. One day, however, he felt a numbness originate at the base of his skull. It became hard to focus while reading, and he found it difficult to maintain the pace of research he had once kept. One night, realizing he was simply too tired to craft an original plan, Josef decided to devote the next day’s class to a student led discussion of the work they were reading, The Dead by James Joyce. Pleased with this solution, Josef finally, for an evening, slipped off the yoke and went to a movie.
The next day he stepped into his classroom rested and excited to hear what the students had to say. Much had changed in the intervening years since he became a teacher. He had seen classes come and go, had nearly worn a groove in the floor from his customary pacing during lectures. He occupied a respected position in the faculty, Director of Humanities, and designed curriculum for both the History and English departments. The students loved him, and would almost always devote the utmost attention to his famous lectures. As they filed in and took their seats, Josef was seated in a chair facing them, a blank chalkboard behind him. The children, used to him standing and writing as they entered, met his gaze with visible confusion.
“Hello class. Today we’re going to try something different,” Josef began. “Lately I’ve gotten rather tired of blathering on everyday, and I wanted to give you guys a chance to lead the class.”
The students shifted in their chairs, some of them glancing at their neighbors. A few placed their pencils down. Josef smiled and continued:
“Alright, so, to kick things off, who can tell me what they think is a dominant theme from the reading?”
The rows of students sat silent and gently shifting, like rows of cornstalks caught in a breeze.
Josef, his smile fading, cleared his throat.
“I say, can anyone identify a theme?”
His glance roved from stare to blank stare, a speeding vehicle confronting a regiment of deer.
“Anyone? Come on, guys, you know how to do this. What did the text make you think about?”
Again, silence. A dark-haired boy in the back row glanced shyly at his neighbor, a pert blonde with a cheerleader face. She looked down at her desk and blushed. Josef’s lips tightened.
“No one?”
A girl in the back tentatively raised her hand.
“Yes,” cried Josef, “Katie!”
All eyes turned to regard the savior as she lowered her hand and said with hesitation, “Is it . . . revenge?”
Josef stared at her blankly.
“Um . . . what gives you that impression?”
“Well,” Katie said, “doesn’t someone die?”
Josef’s eyebrows furrowed in an expression of annoyance.
“Did you do the reading, Katie?”
Katie’s eyes flitted back and forth as she drew her elbows in to her sides.
“Yes. Kinda.”
“Then it’s no, right?”
“Yes,” Katie said, lowering her head.
“Did anyone do the reading?”
Josef didn’t know what to say. He removed his glasses and wiped his suddenly perspiring face with the back of his hand. In the eyes of each student he saw himself reflected, as if he stood in a corridor of mirrors.
“Okay. Let’s take twenty minutes so everyone can read.”
The next day, Josef turned in his resignation. No one understood, and he offered no explanation. The faculty and student body were distraught and organized a large farewell banquet on his behalf. He did not attend. The next week he packed his belongings and left town.
For a few years Josef traveled, living off his savings and retirement plan. He finally settled in a large northeastern city and made ends meet through private tutoring and freelance writing. One day in a bookstore he saw a maroon-haired girl browsing in the Fiction section pick up a used copy of Tropic of Cancer.
“Great book, that one,” Josef said with a smile.
“Oh yeah?” the girl replied, turning and looking him in the eye. “I’ve heard it’s kinda naughty. Have you read it?”
“Yes I have,” said Josef, “as a matter of fact . . . “
Her name was Marie and three months later they were married. It was a perfect match. They pooled their resources and managed to buy a struggling used bookstore. Josef culled the stock and revitalized the selection with a diverse assortment of modern and classic fiction. He also hosted weekly open-mics where aspiring writers could present their work to a sympathetic audience. Josef was a regular contributor, and was always applauded by those in attendance. His first short story was published in a quarterly review the summer of his thirty-fifth year. Five years later he had developed a small reputation as writer of some ability, though he was a bit too literary for most peoples’ tastes and not very commercial. His supporters called him the keeper of a great tradition. His critics simply called him derivative.


Ryan said...

I think I can pinpoint the sentence where Josef grows older than the real thing. Good read.

D. Matus said...

Thanks Ryan. You might be the first person I don't know personally to read my blog. Thanks for the encouragement.