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“So, Professor Pelletier, what do you think is the best novel of the twentieth century?”
At the request of the Enfield College Public Affairs Office, I was giving an interview to The New York Times about the Northbury Center, a research library for the study of American women writers soon to be established at the college. If Dr. Edith Hart’s last will and testament survived family lawsuits, I would someday be director of the center.
Martin Katz, the Times arts reporter, was young and jittery. His dark hair was cut close to his head, his sallow skin pulled tight over flat cheekbones. Although he was slight, and at least two inches shorter than his rigidly disciplined posture suggested he wanted to be, the black polo shirt hugged a buffed torso. “Novel in English, I mean,” he continued, as if he were, of course, intimately familiar with literary work in Urdu and Singhalese. As I considered my response, the journalist flipped a page of his long, skinny notebook and recorded the query. Then he glanced up at me impatiently. Interviewing an Enfield College Assistant Professor about a scholarly research center was not the ambitious Marty Katz’s idea of a cutting-edge assignment. He’d put in his dutiful half hour in my green vinyl office armchair, gotten the tedious academic facts, was concluding the interview with a throwaway question.
Afternoon sunlight spilled through my office windows and across the plush-covered cushions of the window seat, forming a luminous rectangle. The patch of sun crept across floorboards in the direction of Marty’s black-leather running shoes. When it touched his toes, the reporter yanked his feet back toward the safety of the chair and tapped his pen on the page of his notebook. He clearly wanted a response, and he wanted it fast, so he could point his rented car toward the Interstate and escape back to Manhattan without additional risk of contamination by the unsullied New England air.
“Best novel of the century?” What a question. I supposed I should give a thoughtful answer: Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the obvious choice. Then, because I’d recently read it, Jake Fenton’s prizewinning Endurance came fleetingly to mind, but ... no. Of course not. No matter how well-written it was — and it was masterfully written — Endurance was just the kind of testosterone-driven adventure story that always got defined as “great literature.” Anyhow, this reporter’s attitude irritated me, and I wanted to give a provocative response. “Oh... I’d say ... Oblivion Falls by Mildred Deakin.” I’d only finished reading the 1950s page-turner that morning — at 2:17 a.m. — and its haunted characters and steamy sex scenes were fresh in my mind. All too fresh. I was beginning to suspect that my friends were right: I definitely needed a man in my life.
“Oblivion Falls!” Behind the reporter’s gold-rimmed oval lenses, green eyes popped open from their previous half-mast boredom. “What’s that?”
“You don’t know Oblivion Falls, Mr. Katz? I’m surprised. It was a bit of a cultural phenomenon in the fifties — a blockbuster erotic novel, very controversial.”
He flipped another skinny page and began scribbling. This was hot stuff compared to my droning on and on about libraries, archives, and state-of-the-art information-retrieval systems. “Really? I was an English major at Brown, but I never heard of it. How good can it be?”
“What do you mean by good? Good is a relative term. And good for what? College English programs are snobbish about popular fiction, so of course you wouldn’t have studied it at Brown. But Oblivion Falls was immensely popular when it was published in 1957, partly because of the graphic nature of the sex scenes, certainly, but also because it was a damn good story about the hypocrisies of life in a smug New England college town. And it was a roman à clef — a very thinly disguised account of an actual scandal.”
“Smutty, huh?” The keen journalistic nose was quivering on the scent of a torrid story: ENFIELD ENGLISH PROFESSOR ENDORSES LITERARY TRASH!
I shrugged. “The arbiters of morality certainly seemed to think so at the time. Sermons were preached against the novel. It was banned in libraries all across the nation.”
Banned, Marty scribbled in his notebook, then underlined what he had written. I could see his swift hand swoop in the double loops of the capital B, then skim abruptly across the page in the emphatic line of the underscoring. He had the hook for his story.
“And why shouldn’t a book like Oblivion Falls be on the Best Books list?” I didn’t really think Mildred Deakin’s scandalous bestseller was a “great novel” — whatever that means — but I felt like tweaking Marty Katz’s smug preconceptions about literature. “It certainly helped pave the way for a far more honest treatment of erotic experience in literature. And — that’s a stupid question you just asked me anyhow. The best novel! Who’s qualified to decide?”
“Well,” Marty said, frowning, “the professionals, of course. Editors, scholars — ”
I held up a hand to forestall the predictable response. “Nonsense. The whole literary rating thing is a joke. All those lists of ‘the hundred best books of the century’? Tell me, what makes one novel incrementally superior to another? You might as well try to list the hundred best ball games of the century, or the hundred best meals! Or the hundred best — ”
I shut my mouth just in time. I’ll say this for Marty Katz: He could write fast. I suffered a professorial qualm as I saw my outburst recorded for publication. Did I really want to go on record as endorsing the literary qualities of an erotic blockbuster? After all, in two years I come up for tenure in the Enfield English Department. But — what the hell? My literary politics are no secret at Enfield. They hired me because they wanted a specialist in popular literature, and they’ll tenure me for the same reason. Still, ten minutes later, as I stood in the massive front doorway of Dickinson Hall and watched the journalist’s insubstantial figure with its bulging backpack disappear across the rose-scented summer quad in the direction of the college parking lot, I consoled myself with the probability that his editor would most likely find my response silly, and Marty’s hot story would be doused.
This year, the traditional Enfield College English Department end-of-semester party was an evening affair. As I entered Miles Jewell’s backyard, the fragrance of new roses infused the early-June twilight with an intoxicating bouquet. My professorial colleagues clustered in groups of four or five among the American Beauties, buzzing with the newest high-minded literary theories from Paris and the latest lowdown on college politics. It had been a hellish day for me, what with the Times interview — about which I was experiencing increasing pangs of regret — the near-fatal drug overdose of one of my freshman advisees, and a phone call from a father irate about his daughter’s final grade. I wished I were almost anywhere tonight but here, at a department gathering in the midst of this incestuous little college community.
I took two steps down into the rose garden and poured myself a glass of sauvignon blanc from the array of bottles on Miles’s patio table. Before I could bring myself to take another step — toward the nearest group of colleagues and their debate about the integrity (or lack thereof) of cross-ethnic literary hybridization — Miles, my department chairman, came up beside me with a stranger in tow. Male, I noted instantly — very. Fortyish, medium tall, medium burly. “Karen,” Miles said, “I’d like you to meet Jake Fenton.”
Jake Fenton! The Jake Fenton? The novelist? I was astonished. During the interview that afternoon I’d considered mentioning his novel Endurance to Marty Katz as a candidate for best of the century. But, then, I’d had to be a smart mouth and nominate the outrageous Oblivion Falls. Now here was Endurance’s author in person.
“Jake, this is Karen Pelletier,” Miles continued, “one of the English Department’s junior faculty. I’m certain this gentleman needs no introduction to you, Karen. As you may have heard, we’ve been fortunate enough at this late date to entice Mr. Fenton to the college to serve as Distinguished Visiting Writer for the coming school year.”
No, I hadn’t known; I’m not that far inside the corridors of power. I smiled at the writer. He rated a rather extravagant smile.
Jake Fenton took my hand in both of his. “This is a pleasure,” he said.
When I got home that night, my mother’s voice awaited me on the answering machine. “Karen? Karen? Well ... I guess you’re not there. Connie — she’s not there.” My sister muttered in the background. “Karen? Connie says to leave you a message. She says to ask you to come for Fourth of July. You and Amanda. She says to tell you we’ll have a picnic in the backyard — what, dear? Oh, Karen ... Connie says if you’re too busy to come, it’s okay. We know how important you are.”
I sighed and kicked off my party sandals. Connie’s passive-aggressive jab drew blood, just as she intended it to.
The little house on the back road was lonely that night. My daughter Amanda, home from Georgetown for the summer, had taken off for Lowell to spend the weekend with her cousin Courtney. My mother lived in Lowell, too, with Connie, her husband, Ed, and their four kids — of whom Courtney was the oldest. I, on the other hand, avoided Lowell as if there were a plague notice tacked to the city gate. Amanda says I have “unresolved family issues.” She’s right. I don’t belong in Lowell anymore.
I listened to the answering machine rewind my mother’s voice into silence. Even now, if I’m not expecting it, the sound of her wavering voice comes as a shock. I unbuttoned the red cotton sundress I’d worn to Miles’s party. The machine beeped, ready to receive future messages from Lowell. I sighed, and thought back to the party from which I’d just returned. Sometimes I don’t think I quite belong in Enfield either, as my reluctance to partake of the high academic discourse buzzing around in Miles’s garden reminded me. I don’t know where I do belong. Maybe somewhere in a world peopled entirely with characters out of books. But — I have to admit it — I’d been intrigued by Jake Fenton.
Jake was famous. He wrote the type of rugged lone-man-against-the-wilderness novel that somehow managed to beat the odds and win both wild popular success and sober critical acclaim. But I hadn’t realized the writer was such an attractive man, better-looking even than the black-and-white photographs of the flannel-shirted he-man splashed across hundreds of thousands of book jackets.
Tonight the writer had worn khaki pants and a navy polo shirt that fit him well. Dark of hair and eye, he sported the bronzed tan of a devoted sportsman rather than the golden hue of the casual beach lounger. He’d clasped my hand between his for at least three seconds longer than absolutely necessary. My heart had pounded out a totally retrograde tattoo. I’m a literary critic; I should have been contemplating Jake Fenton’s narrative world view. Instead I was gaping at his biceps.
Bolting doors, checking window locks, I wandered through my house, securing it for the night. Then, in the bedroom, I switched on the bedside lamp, and pulled the red dress over my head. In the oval pier-glass mirror I glimpsed a slender, dark-haired woman in lacy white bra and bikini panties — a woman who would be forty in six months, but who, in the forgiving dimness of the single lamp, didn’t look a day over thirty-nine. I stood there for a minute — maybe a minute and a half — studying my mirrored image, and recalling — half-unwillingly — Jake Fenton’s speculative gaze.
“Jake’s just this week relocated to Enfield,” Miles had continued, tipping a bottle of merlot inquiringly in the writer’s direction. Jake nodded. As he sipped the red wine, and Miles continued the flow of social banalities, my new colleague regarded me with a faint smile. His eyes were a stormy gray, with deep lines etched at the corners.
“And,” Miles concluded, “perhaps Karen wouldn’t mind showing you around town one day?” It was phrased as a question but was, in fact, an order from the boss.
“Perhaps she wouldn’t,” Jake agreed, and drowned a crooked smile in his merlot.
Perhaps I wouldn’t mind at all. I’d just opened my mouth to concur, when Miles suddenly commandeered the novelist’s arm in a no-nonsense “follow-me” grip. “That’s Harriet Person over there, Fenton. She’s a power in the Department; let me introduce you.” Halfway across the yard, Jake Fenton had looked back at me and winked.
That night at bedtime my face got the full restorative treatment: lemon-scented micro-moisture cleanser, exfoliant clarifying lotion, advanced night-repair cream, multi-action moisturizer. When I finished cleansing and repairing, the eyes staring back at me from the bathroom mirror were still shadowed. With exhaustion? I wondered. With anxiety? With loneliness? I opened the medicine cabinet again and took down the extra-emollient cucumber-based eye cream.
This is just the kind of man you’ve learned the hard way not to trust, I’d scolded myself, as Miles had led Jake away. Then I’d watched Jake’s broad shoulders for a helpless minute, until Harriet wrested him from the chairman and frog-marched him toward a wicker garden bench positioned cozily beneath Miles’s arbor of climbing roses.
It took an eternity to get to sleep; my brain simply wouldn’t click off. My mother’s message haunted me. I knew I couldn’t go to Lowell for the Fourth — I’d already made plans to spend that weekend on Cape Cod with my friend Jill Greenberg at her parents’ cottage in Wellfleet. Single-mother Jill and her baby Eloise were counting on me. Anyhow, I simply didn’t want to do holiday-time with my family. I’d gone to Connie’s for Easter — and suffered through a dinner fraught with unspoken resentments. Connie and her family loved Amanda — who, against my express wishes, had sought them out after years of estrangement — but I was a problem. No one else in the family had ever attempted any education higher than a few community-college vocational courses, and here I was an English professor, of all things — with a Ph.D. “We’re all gonna have to watch every word that comes outta our mouths,” my brother-in-law, Ed, said. I tried to explain that it didn’t make any difference, that my work was no reflection on my family, that I simply loved books and loved to teach — and that, anyhow, they talked fine. But every word out of my mouth sounded academic and patronizing — even to me.
And, as for Jake Fenton ...
The party had dragged on. With three colleagues, I’d engaged in a tedious debate about implementation of the revised curriculum requirements, then I joined a gossip session with a couple of faculty wives. We’d snagged Jake Fenton from Stallmouth College, I learned. Before that he’d been a visiting writer at Princeton. And before that ... The man’s credentials were impeccable. I’d left for home without further contact with Jake. No way was I about to augment the enthralled cluster of women around the famous man — Patsy Walker, Latisha Mohammed, Sally Chenille. Although I’d picked up on Jake’s signals, and was ... well, attracted, the writer seemed to be just a little too easy with the opposite sex for his own good — or mine. Then, halfway home, I’d remembered that Amanda was gone for the weekend, and I almost turned around and went back to the party.