Tuesday, July 31, 2012

THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL


Harry Targ

(People who spend part of their lives writing at one time or another assume they can write the “Great American Novel.” For about two weeks a few years ago I too suffered such a self-delusion. I wrote about twenty pages before I stopped writing. Yesterday I found what I had written on an old floppy disc. I thought I would share the first few pages with my millions of blog readers. It takes place at Heartland State University and was inspired by the great academic novel by Richard Russo called “Straight Man.” Of course the pages below bear no relationship to reality. HT)

IN THE BEGINNING: THE CALL

He stood tall on the stage behind a large mahogany podium. To his right was a huge portrait of Steven J. Struck, twelfth president of the university, alleged to be the man who built Heartland State University from a small agriculture college to a major university in the 1950s. To the president's left was another overpowering painting, this one of Reverend Jones the deep-voiced representative of the Almighty who used to open all faculty/student meetings and football games with a prayer urging God to make the university "first class." Unfortunately, the damn atheists and liberals raised so much hell about "separation of church and state" that the good Reverend had to cease presiding over public events.

President Vision, in this, his first speech to the university community since arriving on campus, pointed to the portrait on his right. "President Struck took Heartland State to the first level. He put us on the academic map." Then he pointed to the good Reverend: "Reverend Jones showed us how our quest for academic greatness fits the heavenly quest. Our job is to take the university to the next level. We must rise to the heights of the power and the glory that befits our talents. Anything less would be failure."

President Vision, still handsome at middle-age, wearing a brown suit, exhorted 1,500 faculty and probably 75 student leaders to follow him to greatness. While some faculty could be seen smirking, the atmosphere created for most was electric. The faculty was embracing the call to action. Sid Glick, ever the cynic, leaned over to Charles Parks, his close-mouthed and obedient colleague saying: "I hope he moves to the next level and falls off the stage." Charles responded: "He's our new president. Give him a break. He might have something to say." As several dutiful faculty sitting around the two glare at them for talking during the speech, Glick thinks to himself: Most of the older faculty have lived through " the new frontier," "light at the end of the tunnel," "I'm not a crook," "the new world order," and now they sit hands folded drooling over moving to "the next level."

In a deep and passionate voice Vision said: "How do we do it? How do we move from a good university to one of the best universities? We must compete with each other. We must set department against department, faculty colleague against faculty colleague, student against student, and yes janitor against janitor. It is through cutthroat competition that the best shall emerge and lead us all to the Promised Land."

First there is puzzled silence. And then, as if by magic, one then another then almost 1,500 seated listeners nod their approval. Trickles of applause slowly spread until row after row of hands begin to clap and to Glick's dismay, ten, then twenty then fifteen hundred faculty, men and women, young untenured and old wizened tenured faculty, white and African-American, Latino, Asian, rise to signal their support for the new president's call for struggle, struggle for greatness.

The speech goes on to describe how the competition will proceed. Each unit of the university, schools, departments, work groups will develop five-year plans and begin to carry them out.

The plans and the immediate effort to bring them to fruition will be judged by key university administrators with standards yet to be determined. The winning units will get more resources--salaries, paper clips, copy machines- and the losers will have to give them up to the more deserving. In the end, the strongest, most competitive shall survive.

Glick rather loudly says to Park: "Charlie what happens if we beat out the English Department? Do they shut down? What will be the impact on the university as a whole?"

Dour Charles whispers in Glick's ear: "You always see people’s ideas in the worst possible light.  Remember in 1983 on the Faculty Affairs Committee. You were the only person to vote against the new Mortuary Science Department. Just because they were proposing to use freezer facilities in the cafeteria to store bodies you raised all sorts of objections to the program. We almost lost the five million dollar contribution to the university from the Digemup Funeral Corporation because of you."

Glick smiled and responded: “How can I have been so shortsighted?”

"So my friends, members of the Heartland State College family, are you prepared to follow me as we embark on this great adventure? (Shouts of “Yes"). Will you compete with your faculty brothers and sisters in the name of this great university? (Again “Yes"). Will you not be deterred if you engage in ruthless competition with spouses, lovers, long-time friends? (Again the crowd shows its approval). Then let us begin tomorrow and see if we can levitate this university to a new level. Let our research and teaching resonate across the atmosphere like a tornado that moves through space destroying all that stands in its way. To Victory!"

President Vision turns to his left and leaves the stage as the auditorium darkens. The student band launches a Sousa marching tune as the 1,500 inspired souls (or 1,500 minus a few doubters like Glick) march out of the auditorium and head home for supper.

(More later…)