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Barely adequate philosophy professor Legare Hume has a mind-body problem. No matter how far he goes, no matter how hard he thinks, he can't escape the world he lives in. On the run from his wife Tally, Legare joins brilliant but exceptionally awkward colleague Saul Grossman to attend the American Philosophical Association's Charleston, South Carolina, conference, where worlds and walks of life collide in a strange and satirical amalgamation that can only be described as reality. Legare's mission is simple enough:...
Barely adequate philosophy professor Legare Hume has a mind-body problem. No matter how far he goes, no matter how hard he thinks, he can't escape the world he lives in. On the run from his wife Tally, Legare joins brilliant but exceptionally awkward colleague Saul Grossman to attend the American Philosophical Association's Charleston, South Carolina, conference, where worlds and walks of life collide in a strange and satirical amalgamation that can only be described as reality. Legare's mission is simple enough: put up with the conference, read a paper he never thought anyone would want to hear, receive the tenure he isn't sure he wants, and return, or not, to the wife who nearly killed him before he left. But his plans are hijacked by a botched hotel reservation and the all-too-convenient presence of the Southern family Legare has worked very hard all his adult life to avoid.
* * *
The dinner plate, which arced towards me in parabolic elegance, spun just slowly enough that I could make out two blue birds circling above what I supposed to be a pagoda. I was sitting on the mauve futon which Tally, against my objections, bought to replace the vinyl sleeper couch—hit was ugly, sure, but I had been relegated to it enough nights for a fondness to develop. Though she had whipped the disc in a shoulder-forward, girl-throwing way that a grown woman should have been embarrassed about years ago, Tally's overhead release and extended follow-through managed a jai alai hurler's manipulation of centrifugal motion.
My previous underestimation of an argument for the existence of God was now replaced by a more serious underestimation of Tally's arm, and I had to laugh. For her to think she could actually hit me a good fifteen feet across our low-ceilinged "family" room (as she, childless, called it) with a Blue Willow plate, and me only on my third beer, was ridiculous enough. More absurd was her apparent expectation that the plate would hook right at my forehead, so I refused to dodge.
The episode had been caused by an even more fundamental underestimation: her reaction to my announcement that I had decided to go without her to the philosophy conference that week. Slapping her eighty-nine-cent Walgreen's flip-flops across the terrazzo floor to the bedroom, cussing me through gritted teeth for an hour, even yanking open the chifforobe Mama gave her and feigning to pack her "I've-had-it" suitcase—all this I would have called typical, creating in me that usual sense of trapped despair to which I have become so accustomed that I sometimes mistake it for comfort.
But winging a piece of her prized china collection at me, due to my admittedly last-minute decision to go on a four-day trip, was so unexpected that it overwhelmed my ordinary fear of her. I actually felt the urge to chuckle, and leaned into the plate like a pitch. Another man might have ducked, then beaned his wife with his half-empty bottle of Coors. Or he might have set it on a coaster and inquired into what was really bothering her. Me? I sat smiling like an other-forehead-turning Jesus, realizing I had finally taken all she could fork out, and had lived.
I remembered having the same feeling once before. A hurricane hit Charleston when I was an undergraduate. I didn't answer the phone when my worried folks called, hid when they showed up to take me inland, and ended up riding the sucker out. I had just read a Walker Percy novel for a Southern Lit course in which the protagonist has an epiphany during a hurricane, and I thought I could use a storming. Granted, I was drinking a steady stream of cocktails at the time, but in the midst of the wind and broken window and rain gushing in, I really did feel as if I had nothing to lose.
Tally's plate found its mark just above my left eye before landing on the coffee table. It wobbled a few seconds, then settled to face me as if ready to present a meal. I stared at its two flying lovebirds and noticed a yellowed chip on the rim just above them, which explained why she had examined three or four other plates immediately following my announcement before calmly selecting this one. That decision made me laugh even more. What would she have done had I ducked, not giggled, took the hit despite evasive maneuvers, and crumpled to the floor in a most unmanly way? Gasp, run to help me up, and fetch ice? And what would I do? Apologize, bemoan doing so much to cause her such distress? I could not fully unpack the implications of this moment, but I was sure I had met some sort of horizon, some boundary experience that might redirect my life. Or else I was drunker than I thought and could not have evaded the plate had I tried. Either way, I had called five years of her bluffing, and I had won by just sitting still.
I promptly phoned Grossman. I would explain later, I told him, but he should swing by and pick me up in the morning on his way to the conference.
* * *
Two philosophers in a ten-year-old Volvo station wagon with bald tires and no rear-view mirror crossing Tampa Bay is hardly noteworthy, unless you know they are heading south on the Interstate towards Sarasota to go north to South Carolina.
"Where are you going?" I said. "You need 275 North-turn right."
"This is the way I know," Grossman said.
"But we need the Howard Franklin Bridge."
"Unsound. The Skyway's state-of-the-art." He stuck a pinkie with a too-long nail into his right ear and shook his arm as if trying to widen the hole.
"Didn't it collapse a few years ago?" I asked.
"Rebuilt. That's why it's so strong."
"OK. Then what about the causeway through Clearwater?"
"And going south through Bradenton isn't?"
"I know this way. It's how I came." He removed his finger from his ear and inspected something on the nail.
I realized he meant he would drive east through Manatee County, then north to I-4 through Orlando to I-95. It was the reverse of the route he had taken when he first drove from New York to St. Petersburg two weeks after getting his driver's license and buying the used Volvo. In his four years at AmWorld U., Grossman had strayed from his campus/apartment/grocery store axis only once, when I dragged him snook fishing. He waded out twenty feet into the water, only to scare up a sting ray and shit in his bathing suit.
Even among philosophers, Grossman was a nut. Two years earlier, when I mentioned I was thinking of driving to the Keys to try to hook a bonefish, he showed me his list of 600 or so North American bridges, of which he had probably seen five, along with their specifications. So I had no right to complain about his route to South Carolina, but in my defense, I had decided just the day before to go to the conference, which made it too late to book a flight. I could not leave Tally carless (even though I imagined she was still too mad to drive), and Grossman was going anyway. Further, his leaving the county needed my witnessing, and that itself was worth his route amendment and phlegmatic driving style, and the fifteen-hour trip.
Grossman and I both started teaching at AmWorld U. when America World Enterprises of Orlando theme park fame bought a bankrupt Cordle College. The Cordle president had been caught in a sex scandal involving several male students and a missing couple of million dollars. Even with pictures, the old boy somehow got away clean and rich, but enrollment at Cordle plummeted. Sinecured faculty, whose only previous worry had been white St. Pete Beach sand in their drawers, now found little to fill their scrambled-over résumés. AmWorld freed some noosed necks by giving an endowment to Cordle, changing the name to America World University West Campus, and issuing early retirement tickets to three-quarters of the Cordle faculty.
The AmWorld U. main campus in Orlando, which used to be the University of Central Florida, now churned out almost entirely School of Entertainment Studies graduates, most of whom were on a work-study plan that had them don furry animal costumes at the theme park when not in class. After receiving their degrees, most went to work full-time at the very same jobs, and for the very same minimum wage, at the very same theme park, the only careers for which their degrees seemed suited. In its first three years, AmWorld U. began to make money, and thus caught criticism from the rest of higher ed, so it wolfed up Cordle College to establish academic credibility by having a second campus that demanded the high standards of a traditional liberal arts college. Announcements went out calling for the best and brightest of academe to apply, but somehow they got me.
We crested the Skyway. A few hundred yards west, officially outside Tampa Bay, a few snowbirds sat on upended paint buckets, probably baited up with fiddler crabs and trying to feel the pianissimo of a sheepshead alongside the pilings of the old bridge. The local joke is that the sheepsheads are so nervous that you have to set the hook before the pulse comes through the line.
It was a long way up, down, however we were getting there, and I needed something to kill the silence, so I asked Grossman something I'd always wondered about-how a seriously talented philosopher like him wound up stuck at a rinky-dink college like AmWorld U.
"I already told you," he said. "Right when we started teaching together, when I couldn't fit my key into my office door lock, and you helped me-"
"Just remind me, all right?"
"They interviewed me at the APA in New York."
That much I knew. Grossman was only in his mid-twenties then, but already he'd managed a Ph. D. from Columbia and a string of articles in the toughest journals in the country, which pretty much outshines my entire career. I was never sure if he knew it (ending up here, he couldn't have), but Grossman could have had his pick of nearly any school he wanted.
I'd already been able to piece together the fact that Grossman had bummed around Columbia and taught as an adjunct after finishing his Ph. D., because, being a savant geek, in addition to a lapsed Hasidic Jew disinherited by his jeweler family when his interests turned from God to Gödel, he had no idea what else to do nor even that something else should be done.
Me, I was desperate for any offer and applied to AmWorld U., as I had to forty other colleges, fudging on my training and specialties to meet their descriptions and hoping to bluff my way through the interviews. Tally was pulling for me to get this job, because her parents had retired and moved from Atlanta to Lakeland, about an hour or so from St. Pete. The AmWorld reps at the American Philosophical Association conference that year were looking to fill four openings with specialties in logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of religion. Since I had just completed my Ph. D. at Rutgers, which had recently wooed three big names in philosophy of mind to its department, the reps assumed that I did philosophy of mind, which I did not, but as I talked about my training in phenomenology, using phrases like "contents of consciousness" and "noetic intentionality," it all sounded like the same stuff to them. One interrupted with, "Then you do philosophy of religion, too, right?" I was not sure what they had misheard—maybe I mentioned the philosopher Gadamer and he thought I said "God"—or whether they threw existentialism in with religion, but I said, "Of course."
"What I mean," I said to Grossman, "is why didn't you get snagged by some good school?"
"I didn't want to leave the city, but my professors at Columbia negotiated with the people here. They said they had talked to my uncle in Ithaca, and I would live with him." He was smoking a Chesterfield that I did not know could still be found, pinching it between the tips of his thumb and ring finger as if the little cylinders had never become familiar in his hand, blowing the smoke out the window, and squinting to read the mileage signs. My sense of smell seemed especially acute, and the smoke was strong and stiff.
"Wait, I'm confused. Ithaca?"
"I was confused, too. The Cordell representatives could not recall anything about my uncle, and they were talking about St. Petersburg." He picked something from the tip of his tongue, probably a bit of tobacco, and examined it before wiping it on his sweater. "They asked me a couple of questions. One of the men said he'd heard about me. Then they offered me the job."
"Hold on a minute—did you say Cordell?"
"Yes. That was the former name of AmWorld."
"No, Saul. It was Cordle. Listen, you said you have an uncle who lives in upstate New York?"
"Uncle Morris—my only relative who doesn't live in the city. Why?"
"You dumbass. They were talking about Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Cornell. You could be teaching half your load now for double the salary." Something finally made sense. The AmWorld reps had landed Grossman on their first cast, and they got a twofer in him (logic and philosophy of language) and were still celebrating their efficiency when they interviewed me, who specialized in none of those fields (and was good in no others) but was mistaken for another double talent. Only a half hour into the trip, and I had made a major discovery.
"You never told me that, Saul, because I sure as hell would have remembered it."
"I did tell you, Greazy, and you labeled me a dumbass that time as well. Then I asked about your background, and you just said, 'Hard to say.'" He looked out the window with a jerk. "Is this it?"
Grossman always expected his interlocutors to know just what he was talking about, even when he revived a conversation from exactly the point it had broken off years before. Usually, he did the breaking off—something suddenly occurred to him, and off he would go. Tally hated that about him almost as much as his incessant teeth-picking, followed by intense scrutiny of the extracted morsel.
"Is this what?"
"Is this the South?"
"Don't start that shit." I figured this query was related to his remark to me years earlier that living in the South did not seem so bad, and I corrected him, saying that St. Pete and much of Florida, for that matter, were not the South. He had looked confused and jotted something down in the little notebook he kept in his breast pocket. One side of his office desk was stacked with the little notebooks he had filled over the years. I had always assumed he was making notes for some logic proof emerging in his head. Once, when he had left a notebook in a classroom, I picked it up to return to him, but thumbed through and found this sort of thing: "Quantified Logic seminar each Tuesday at 1 o'clock pm. Many television channels. Juanita the cleaning lady speaks Spanish. After 10 o'clock pm is late. Music next door is very loud. Wittgenstein's deontic logic—?"
"I want to know when we're there," he said. "You're the only Southern person I know, I think, and Charleston is the real South, right?" He knew me more than a year before I revealed to him that I was Southern. My accent (resilient despite my post-college attempts to dispel it) and tastes for bluegrass and snuff were no clues to him. He knew only that I had gone to Rutgers for my Ph. D. and assumed I was a New Jerseyan.
I was the only Southerner in the Letters Collegium, except for one historian from El Paso who claimed Southernness when convenient, but I called him western. Not that my roots ever made much difference to me; I had just grown sick of being drilled on all things Southern as if I were W. J. Cash. The literary types were the worst. They expected me to wear white suits and have mint julep breakfasts and say, "Yes Suh, we shall rahz again," and offer a speech on the nobility of the mule and the proper preparation of the hoecake. They could not pass me in the hall without informing me how much they adored Flannery O'Connor and how proud I must be of my rich heritage. I would explain that I had indeed grown up an hour from Fort Sumter—in a trailer. And they would laugh and laugh.
The knot on my forehead from Tally's aerial attack the day before started to ache.
"Charleston, for all its beauty," I said, "is just another tourist trap that has somehow convinced the world that it is not. I could stand on the corner of King and Broad, and New Yorkers like you would gladly pay five bucks a pop to hear me say, 'Shut my mouth.' Now who's the carpetbagger?"
"I don't know."
I immediately felt bad. Grossman might be the most brilliant person I have ever known, but he never knows when someone is making fun of him. Besides, I needed to remember how terrified he must have felt, not only driving his car for maybe the dozenth time since he had gotten it, but actually driving it hundreds of miles. Worse, he was surely mortified about having to read a paper at the American Philosophical Association conference. Despite penning an article every couple of months in a top philosophical journal, writing two books since coming to AmWorld U., and receiving good enough student evaluations—they were charmed by a self-absorption they took to be shyness—he had never presented a paper at, nor even submitted one to, a refereed conference. This presentation was now a requirement for tenure—the personnel office had mistakenly used "and" instead of "or" in the list of tenure requirements. He and I were both up for tenure, and the APA conference at Charleston happened to be the nearest one for Saul, a non-flyer. He had submitted a paper to the APA that I knew would be placed on the program, and he had elicited a half-promise from me to accompany him.
My yearly submissions to the APA since grad school had all been rejected. I had published two articles harvested from my dissertation, which I was still hawking to university presses. And I had read several papers (well, several versions of the same paper) at second-rate conferences. Students liked me, and I had not actually slept with any, and while the administration and everyone else probably knew I would never have an idea that would light any philosophical fires, they still thought I would do. So, tenure was within reach, but I needed something to seal it up. A paper presented at the APA would do it, and I sent in one in which I attacked another philosopher's attack on a famous philosopher's version of the ontological argument for the existence of God. Lo and behold, I got a letter saying my paper had been accepted and placed on the conference program for presentation.
It was the saddest day of my life.
* * *
The ontological argument comes from the 11th-century monk Anselm, who said that if we define God as that which nothing greater can be conceived, and if we agree that existence is greater than nonexistence, then QED, you got your God argued into existence as pretty as pi.
For centuries, philosophers have roundly rejected the argument for various logical technicalities. Chauncey Hartley, now a hundred years old and retired from the University of Chicago, built a grand career defending it. Hartley claimed that Anselm's second version, which the old monk probably did not distinguish from the first, restated the second premise—necessary existence is greater than nonexistence (and also a whole lot better than plain old existence). It was thus immune to the attacks. To claim that God or anything else exists is to assert a contingent fact that is settled only by empirical verification. But to say that God exists necessarily is not to state a contingent fact, and that changes the metaphysical ballgame.
Excerpted from Hume's Fork by RON COOPER Copyright © 2007 by Ron Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Bancroft Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 3, 2007
Few author's could have taken on the task of combining the major tenants of modern philosophy, a road trip with an 'interesting' colleague to a philosophy convention, a crazy family, the underbelly culture of lowland South Carolina and professional wrestling in a little over 250 page -- but Cooper succeeds hilariously. An interesting combination of sarcastic and sharp biting comedy and some serious investigations into life's most difficult questions. If you like John Kennedy Toole, you will love Ron Cooper. One of the best first novels I have ever read since A Confederacy of Dunces.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.