The Devil and the Rising Sun: A Year Inside the West Carolina University Admissions Department
By Cortoroy Chen
Hildegard House; 350 pp.
In the spring of 2007 the risk-taking journalist Cortoroy Chen embarked on the adventure that led to this brilliant and occasionally terrifying book: he got a job as a departmental assistant in the admissions office at West Carolina University. Dressed in linen suits with almond-scented lapels, he endeared himself to the staff in a matter of days. But this is far from some tweedy, elbow-padded comedy of manners: on his first day at work, Chen’s translator is killed—Chen, having just discovered that everyone at the university speaks English, lures him deep into the stacks of Darden Library and bludgeons him with a non-circulating copy of Middlemarch.
The most fascinating and conflicted character we meet here is Leopold Roth, the dean of admissions. “Outwardly, Roth embodied the department’s core values of professionalism and competence,” Chen writes. “Privately, though, he wrestled with the enormousness of his power.” Roth, “a man of unbridled ambition,” rose to prominence as dean of admissions at the unusually tender age of 32, though Chen perhaps exaggerates with the Alexander the Great comparisons. (Furthermore, Chen is fond of assigning Homeric epithets to his characters, but it is hard to see what he is driving at with his constant mentions of Roth’s “dawn-hued gums.”)
The book is anecdotally rich. Chen illuminates the speech given by Roth at the Fall 2007 Accepted Students Weekend by showing us Roth’s pre-speech ritual. It is a portrait of the most raw and naked madness: as a voice on stage introduces him, Roth is backstage in his Art Deco dressing room, spreading “expensive cheese on expensive crackers he would never eat, for he despised both,” and, just before taking the stage, asking his undergraduate assistant where to find great deals on women’s sweaters.
Still, it is the feuding, courting, and schadenfreude among the admissions personnel that most fascinates. “Dean Roth was the face of Admissions,” Chen writes. “But Assistant Dean Paul Lambreth was the neck and the pancreas—the true creative force, and it was his prowess with Microsoft Excel spreadsheets that ultimately helped him win the affections of Associate Dean Lynne Hoyt, who, as the department’s sole female, harbored a secret love of being objectified.”
If Chen dwells too much on the dirty details, this can be attributed not only to reportorial thoroughness but also to the inevitable effect of prolonged proximity to greatness. As he writes, in a particularly damning passage: “Like movie stars, they reeled you in, captivating you with a glamour that temporarily blinded you to their flaws. Blessed with that unique ability to simultaneously elicit envy and disgust, they dared you to question their lavish lifestyles, their elaborate carelessness.” He goes on, “At times, in Roth’s presence, I truly felt as though he were chewing on my arm.”
By the end of The Devil and the Rising Sun, the mystique that has for so long shrouded the department has been punctured. We also learn of Chen’s tragic fate: in an act of tremendous intellectual courage, he published the book knowing it would be used against him in the translator’s murder trial. (He is now serving a life sentence as social media director at Sing Sing.)
His book, then, stands as a heroic example of public service. But beyond the outlandish tales lies the unassailable fact of the department’s work. In the summer of 2008 the staff rented a mansion in rural France to compile what would become that fall’s admissions booklet, which today is generally considered their masterpiece. (Among other things, that summer produced the famous photograph of Paul Lambreth wearing a t-shirt that read “Who the F*** is Leopold Roth?” that led to Lambreth’s assassination.) That summer was, as Chen recalls: “a fog of marijuana smoke, sexual deception, and late night, booze-fueled philosophical discussions about diversity initiatives and financial aid.” The fog has lifted, but the work remains.
Gregory Beyer is a writer living in New York. His journalism, essays and reviews of actual books have appeared in The New York Times.