Read an Excerpt BLIND SPEED
By JOSH BARKAN
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One (A little background first.)
When he was born, Paul Berger was already a little ugly. His mouth was big, and by the age of thirty-four his lips bulged up and outward. His cheeks were chubby, his blond hair short in an uncombed-don't wake me up or bother me now, I might be recovering from some drugs or from a night out-kind of way.
He had been in a fairly successful band, not just in high school and college but professionally. (They cut a few albums, one on a real label, opened for some Top 40 alternative bands, and Paul was the drummer.) But when he was twenty-seven it became clear they would never quite make it to the big time. They just weren't good enough. Paul didn't use the excuse the public wasn't ready for their kind of music-or that commercialism had ruined the whole industry. He might have believed the part about commercialization, but he also knew they just didn't have the talent. That simple. "It was just that clear," he would tell others.
Yet he was still a fan. He would still pony up two hundred dollars-even though he didn't have a lot of dough-to sit in the front row at the Orpheum in downtown Boston, for the right group. And if circumstances had been just a little different, his band might have hit the big time-by that I mean if they'd had just an ounce or two more talent.
(Now to the less serious, less manipulative, more sarcastic, funny part.)
What he did now-at the beginning of this book-is teach Am. Stud. at B_______ Community College. And because he liked history, especially the history of pop culture, he swerved off highway 2 into Concord when he saw a sign announcing a BATTLE REENACTMENT OF THE SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD.
"You know, somehow I don't think it was heard round the world," Paul said to his fiancée, Zoe, and he guffawed as they decelerated from the blind speed of the highway, past blurred spring maple leaves, toward the town center. "Seven Americans die and we think everyone is interested. But two thousand people die in an earthquake in El Salvador and no one gives a fuck.' Course, I'm not saying there wasn't something different here-something metaphorical. A few good lads dying to take on tyranny." He went into a Colonial accent. "Long live these our great United free States. Death to King George. But I mean, really. Talk about self-aggrandizement. And wasn't it all just really about taxes?"
In the center of Concord they did a half circle around a granite obelisk inscribed with the names of patriotic heroes, then continued out of town past Revolutionary-era wooden houses gussied up in red, white, and blue bunting and down a small road lined with old oak trees and white pines to a parking lot a hundred yards from the Old North Bridge, jammed with cars.
The Daughters of the American Revolution had planted a long rectangular garden of red, white, and blue pansies and tulips at the far end of the lot, complete with an arched wire grating six inches high along the edge of the flowers, and as Paul squeezed between a Cadillac and a VW SUV, he parked his worn-out Toyota Corolla with one tire over the victory garden.
"Careful of the flowers," Zoe said.
Paul peered over the hood of the car, winced at his mistake, and shrugged. "Nothing I can do now." He pulled his sunglasses out of the beat-up glove compartment and popped the frame over his regular lenses. It was sunny, the air crisp, the sky so blue. It was one of those New England days when you could put all of your troubles away for a couple of hours. They always crept back in.
"Did you get a load of the tall guy when we came in the lot?" Paul said. "Fuckin' A. Seven feet tall, a beanpole, and they made him the drummer boy."
The lot was crowded with Revolutionary War reenactors, tourists, Concord locals, and kids pulling their parents' hands to approach one reenactor or another. Some of the soldiers cleaned their muskets. Others tugged on Revolutionary-era leggings and belts with cartridge boxes. They sifted gunpowder into powder horns. They straightened their three-cornered black felt hats and pulled flags out of pick-up trucks. The redcoats stood at attention in two tidy rows on a grass field beside the parking lot and swung their muskets through firing drills in unison. Their commander, who had a red handlebar mustache, over-enunciated and bits of spit flew. "Fire, men! Fire 'til you take every last one of them."
The main event was supposed to start in thirty minutes, but the minutemen were engaged in some kind of disagreement as to who should play John Buttrick-the leader of the Colonials-when they came down from Punkatasset Hill to the Old North Bridge. And who would order the first shots at the king's men?
Paul looked across the parking lot, then further across the road they had driven in on, and he noticed the Ralph Waldo Emerson house. He had visited the Old Manse a couple of times before-a walnut clapboard with red, white, and blue cloth over the door. Inside the cozy home Nathaniel Hawthorne had churned out Mosses from an Old Manse, and in a moment of passion-or so it was said-he had inscribed his love to his wife using her diamond wedding ring on one of the upstairs bedroom windows, in fucking cursive no less. There was something else amusing about the house: the irony that the most important battle of the American Revolution-the shoot-out at the Old North Bridge-had taken place just outside the residence of the pacifist Ralph Waldo Emerson. True, Emerson was born after the battle, in 1803, but his grandfather had been living in the house at the time of the Revolution, and the juxtaposition of such pacifism against such violence struck Paul as a symbol of an eternal truth about American history: Nixon, that goofy Vietnam War mortician, was right: the silent majority ruled (not the rebellious, pacifist fringe); the majority killed for their property; and there was nothing really revolutionary about the minutemen, who won a war and took over the entire country to ultimately build fast-food restaurants and Disneyland while abolitionists, pacifists, hippies, and environmentalists were left to make well-intended flatulent noises-to write poems such as Ginsberg's "Howl"-in books for other defeated noisemakers.
A throng of reporters surrounded a man at the entrance to the Emerson house, obscuring him so that not even his forehead could be seen. The man was making some kind of speech. It was ten thirty in the morning-robins and cardinals were trying to maintain their identities, splicing their birdcalls between the fifes and drums. TV lights floated above the reporters, and cameras flashed around the journalists with bolts of white light, spearing the man at the center. The journalists pushed recorders toward the man, and when he was done with his statement, voices overlapped firing questions. The rays from the TV lights formed a corona around the reporters, and a ring of vacationing onlookers surrounded the reporters like secondary planets circling the sun.
Paul heard two reenactors next to him speculate about the identity of the man. "What's going on over there?" he asked them. They turned their attention hesitantly away from the reporters. The pupils of their eyes were still tight from the burning lights. One of the soldiers was the awkwardly tall drummer boy. Certainly Paul had never seen so tall a soldier in the good ol' days of the educational slide shows about the American Revolution he'd been forced to watch in elementary school. The tall soldier had a thin, pointy mustache, and he played with the wax at the tips. "You know, I've been on TV a coupla times befo-" he said with a thick south Boston accent, "for other reenactments and import'nt events like this one, and I know most of the pepul who participate in these battles, but I can't make out who it is over they'r-." He grunted and put his hand over his crotch. "But I gotta tell ya, whoever it is, is gonna get a good run in the sack tonight. I mean it! My wife saw me on TV last year at the battle over at Fort Warren and she nearly ate me like an a-phro-di-siac." His buddy next to him, a comparatively dwarfish redcoat with a Vietnam MIA pin attached to the leather pouch of his ammunition belt, nodded.
What would you do with soldiers like this? Paul thought. What would you do if you were their lieutenant? Nice, horny, dumb. But he hoped to get laid, just like them, when the day's wedding preparations were over.
"I'm going to go check out who it is," Paul told Zoe. She'd caught up to him, finally, after putting grape-colored lip gloss on in the car.
"It's probably just the mayor of Concord," Zoe said. "Isn't the reenactment going to be over there?" She waved in the direction of the river to indicate she'd rather go straight to the bridge.
By day she worked at Mass General Hospital as a nurse, and in the evening she acted in the few theaters of Boston. Reporters came in front of the hospital all the time to cover famous patients, and she'd grown tired of the press unless they had something to do with the theater. But her real aversion to TV cameras, Paul thought, was that she was afraid of being caught less than fully beautiful on tape. She told him all the time the camera made everyone put on ten pounds. At the beginning of her career she'd been on a national soap opera in L.A. for six months, until her character was poisoned. After that she couldn't find okay work, and she'd eventually ended up East.
Behind the Emerson house, to the right, down a pathway lined with ancient white pines, a replica of the Old North Bridge spanned the tiny Concord River, a half a wagon wheel rising in a pastoral arc over the river. Grandmothers and grandfathers, parents and children meandered down the path toward the bridge, where the reenactment would eventually begin.
"It can't be the mayor," Paul said. "The way they're asking him questions is too intense. I'm going to go see what's up."
Zoe looked at her watch. They were due at the caterer's in an hour to finalize the menu. (The wedding was scheduled in thirteen days and the first course had yet to be settled.) She was exhausted by all of the planning, but Paul thought she looked phenomenally good, even though she was clearly impatient with him (and had every right to be, he thought). She had on a pair of purple see-through imitation Gucci plastic sunglasses over her large, glassy, dark-brown eyes, a hand-embroidered peasant blouse that left her shoulders bare, dark tight jeans, and her thick hair, touched with henna highlights, was pulled back into a high ponytail that accented her cheekbones.
"Who knows?" Paul said. "It could be David Mamet. Or Arthur Schlesinger Jr. or some other famous director or historian. Maybe Henry Kissinger is telling us he's decided to become German again!"
But he knew almost no one cared about historians or Henry Kissinger anymore except the viewers of C-Span, PBS, and Book-of-the-Month Club hobby historians who took summer trips to Gettysburg in RVs, and to Concord, too, of course. The Old North Bridge at Concord was hobby history central. (Although he theorized the Civil War excited people more than the Revolution. Northerners preferred to hear how they'd kicked the shit out of the South, and Southerners loved to hear how they'd fought the North in order to preserve their plantation "culture and honor." They liked to think they would have won, too, if it hadn't been for a few twists of fate. And studying the Civil War gave Southerners the opportunity to argue that it hadn't been about slavery. No, they loved their niggers, they were so good to their Negroes, they understood their niggs; the war had plainly been all about states' rights.)
It was this loop of stalemated arguments that caused Paul to teach only post-World War II American studies: the present had yet to be mantra-fied. A young scholar of the recent past could do more than simply challenge historical "truths," writing obscure articles, adding only tiny pebbles to the stone soup of history. A young observer of recent times could come up with an original grand explanation, an account that might last, like Thucydides' Peloponnesian War (though nothing lasted forever, really ... and besides, the trick now was not to document the main battles but rather the fringe characters and trends that bordered on the mundane yet which people could identify with). Yet, seven days ago in a meeting with the chairman of his department, his grand plans and ideas had spontaneously combusted. Chairman Kominski had informed him, choosing his words as carefully as a Surgeon employing a scalpel, leaning his bony butt against his battleship-gray desktop (the same desk they had in every office): "Now Paul ... I know B______ Community College isn't always the be-all end-all. And forth is reason, we're usually more than accommodating to a young professor who needs a little more time. But your seven years are up ... True, you brought in fresh air when you came. I still remember your first term here. And big ideas almost nonexistent in a place like this ... You were brutally good then, perhaps because you were an outsider from the 'normal' academy, and I had high expectations for you ... But you've got to understand the pressure from the other members of the department who've already earned their permanent positions, and from the other candidates coming up who want tenure. The faculty has demanded we hold a final up or down vote ... So unless you can finish a manuscript and get a publisher by the end of June, or at least write a significant article-just one-I don't have to tell you what the outcome of the meeting is likely to be."
The words sounded like a horn at the end of a long tunnel warning of a crash rapidly approaching. Paul had been told when he took the job that tenure wouldn't be a problem, and for the most part his students liked him. And wasn't this a community college? It was hardly a research university. He found his voice, at last. "And that's what I want to do, too, Chuck. Finish my book. I mean, of course I'll finish it. The manuscript is halfway through. Or at least a quarter. I'm just temporarily blocked." He threw his hands up in the air, as if to say, What do you want me to do about it? It's out of my control.
And it was out of his control, wasn't it? He found it impossible to write after the first forty-five pages. He'd been blocked for six years now-something even he had to admit was a feat for someone only thirty-four years old. But his incompetence didn't stem from having no research. He had piles of note cards and videotapes, reams of material detailing American conspiracy theories, the origin and development of popular how-to sex books, the history of American studies of sexual dysfunction, the development of the modern porn industry and private gun collecting as characteristics of American paranoia and feelings of inadequacy and the search for nirvana-but none of it was molded into any cohesive structure.
I must be a fucking idiot, he told himself as he left Chairman Kominski's office. Just a fucking, plucking idiot. A failed nin-com-fucking-poop. Of course, he didn't really fully believe this, yet. Did he? But it was becoming harder and harder not to. Hadn't he dropped out of a losing band? Hadn't he frittered away seven years without producing an article, let alone a book? He'd planned to tell Zoe last night about his meeting with Kominski, an encounter he was well aware had already taken place a week ago, but he found it impossible. Wouldn't she just think he was even more unworthy than she already probably thought he was, just before the wedding? Yet he did try to tell her last night when they were in bed. He twisted the words through his mind. But before he was able to find the courage to speak, she'd turned away, pushing her down pillow behind her head like a wall, blocking him with her elbow as he lay in bed. And so he stared up in the darkness of the room, at the ceiling, and said nothing except to himself, What a lame mother-fucker, what an absolute loser I might become if I don't do something about my lameness.
Excerpted from BLIND SPEED by JOSH BARKAN
Copyright © 2008 by Josh Barkan . Excerpted by permission.
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