Perfect Agreement

Overview

Mark Sternum is full of droll observations about the rules that govern our language. A professor who teaches spelling and grammar at Boston's McClintock College ('An odd job for a college professor,' he is told, 'but no one else seems to be doing it'), he leads a diligent if somewhat detached life. Friends and family try to coax him into deeper involvement, but he keeps his lover at arm's length and screens all incoming calls -- including his eccentric sister's 'word pictures' about the waning days of their ...
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Overview

Mark Sternum is full of droll observations about the rules that govern our language. A professor who teaches spelling and grammar at Boston's McClintock College ('An odd job for a college professor,' he is told, 'but no one else seems to be doing it'), he leads a diligent if somewhat detached life. Friends and family try to coax him into deeper involvement, but he keeps his lover at arm's length and screens all incoming calls -- including his eccentric sister's 'word pictures' about the waning days of their comatose mother. Then Rashelle Whippet, an African-American single mother who fails the college's basic skills test for the last time, accuses Mark of 'prejudgism,' and he is fired. Blown off course, he monitors the ensuing academic skirmish from a distance as his case makes national headlines. In the midst of this mess, his lover decides to move out of town, an anonymous supporter e-mails him daily advice, and his father, Thomas, a photographer famous for his pictures of the Shaker communities that once thrived in America, turns up for a visit. Mark is particularly surprised by this last turn of events: he had believed his father was dead. The mysterious Thomas moves in and begins a tale about Sister Celia and the Negro Jesus who visited the Shakers more than a hundred years earlier. In spite of himself, Mark is mesmerized by the story, which offers him the chance to understand, finally, his father's lonely passion for the Shakers.
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Editorial Reviews

National Public Radio
Beautifully written and very funny.
Newsday
Exquisite writing. . . .His genius at weaving story lines becomes apparent.
San Francisco Chronicle
Cleverly constructed and thoroughly engaging.
Washington Post Book World
Downing has filled his novel with so much intelligence and beauty that it can modify your life, like a loved one.
From the Publisher
"A novel of compassion and wit . . . Downing combines one man’s tale of loss and acceptance, the lost rhythms of the Shaker world, and the delights of the English language." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Downing is better at writing about Shakers than Hawthorne or Melville . . . The feeling for the community and its members ring true." —New York Times Book Review

"Perfect Agreement is as artfully and solidly constructed as a Shaker table . . . Exquisite."
Newsday

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425166284
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 10/1/1998
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 8.06 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Downing is the author of two other critically acclaimed novels, Mother of God and A Narrow Time, as well as a play, The Last Shaker. Director of writing and assistant professor of humanities at Boston's Wheelock College, Downing is also a playwright-in-residence at Boston's Open City/Theater for the Future.

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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

[STANDARD USAGE]

This story has already cost me my father. It was a loss of the worst kind, a loss I can live with. This distinguishes it from the loss of my job as director of the writing programs at McClintock College at the close of the 1996 academic year. I have to replace the job; I can't live without one of those. Fortunately, I will not have to conduct a search. My qualifications and my experience, along with the details of my dismissal, were broadcast in news stories and editorials throughout New England and New York during the last two weeks of May. You might have heard about me; my dead father did. I was the guy who refused to pass a so-called Black female student on the spelling portion of the Competency Achievement Test (CAT) and thus prevented her from entering her junior-year practice-teaching experience. It turned out all right in the end, in the World's terms: Rashelle was awarded a provisional pass by the college's academic dean, and I became the poster child of the angry so-called White people who are waging a campaign against political correctness. I found myself in bed with people who use the phrase "politically correct" as a white sheet. They use it to intimidate good people and to disguise their distaste for behaviors and institutional policies that acknowledge our place in history. They hate to be reminded of the past, which they treat like a corpse, rotten but hidden from view, memorialized with a headstone that records a few dates and a pious epitaph. Thus their outrage when someone starts digging it up. The past is dead; let it be. After a few years and a few bouquets of cut flowers, the smooth granite block is all we have, and it becomes a substitute for whatever lies beneath it. But the past is not a corpse. And the dead are not dead, as I have learned this month, this cool and breezy June. And though it makes a less effective epithet, could we suspend use of the term "politically correct" and accuse do-gooders instead of being morally correct? This is what is meant. After all, most of us know that we ought to bend over backward to help people whose lives are hard. When He was asked how often we are supposed to inconvenience ourselves, the White Jesus said, Not just seven times but seventy times seven times. (Don't do the math. He was a poet. He meant "Again. Always again.") Of course, there are fanatics everywhere, like germs, and they can infect a place. And college campuses are petri dishes for extremism. At McClintock, bending over to help became so fashionable that walking upright was deemed insensitive. Administrators and faculty scurried around like crabs, and the students got to like being bigger. I don't blame Rashelle for doing her best to avoid the spelling section of the CAT. What was I going to do, snap at her heels with my claw? Besides, as she explained in the letter she wrote under the guidance of a sociologist, "Mark has been showing his prejudgism to me." It sounded like a morals charge, but in her accompanying documentation, the sociologist explained that "prejudgism is a remarkable coinage, wherein Rashelle has conflated the behavioral inclination (the prejudice) with the sociopersonal causative (racism), and by importing the g to create a nonstandard spelling of the word (prejudice is the version more often recorded in English-language communities), Rashelle reconvenes the word with its literal cognate (judge). In short, Rashelle has been pre-judged, mix-judged." My judgment was and remains to this day a simple one: Rashelle can become an 80 percent speller. That's what I did for seven years at McClintock; I believed everyone could be literate--in the standard sense. I taught freshmen and sophomores how to spell and use rudimentary grammar. It was my work, not a cause. But publicity turned me into the Standard Bearer for Standards, and after I was fired, I was invited to apply for openings at three universities and four colleges in Boston, not one of them as progressive or innovative as McClintock, where I belong. I have my first interview this afternoon at Massachusetts Commonwealth University (MCU), pioneers in the policy of recruiting wealthy international students to bypass affirmative action quotas. (Quota: a great, plain word demonized by those who are inconvenienced by quotas and never spoken by those who know we need quotas, rather like the name Eugene McCarthy). I do not belong at MCU. But before you entertain any gripes on my behalf, be aware that I will be named an associate professor of literature or the humanities (so that the students in my basic skills classes do not suspect they are being forced to do remedial work); I will be paid forty or fifty thousand dollars per academic year (not your standard year--classes meet two or three times a week and there are two fourteen-week semesters; do the math); and along with the attendant privileges, technology, support services, and benefits, I will be given parking rights in the city, where off-street spaces are otherwise sold or leased as condominiums. These conditions of employment, I have learned, constitute my "academic freedom"--another disguise, this one worn proudly, like regalia, by the conspirators better known as the Faculty. Don't misunderstand me; academic freedom remains a serious matter in higher education, but it is a matter of principal.

DICTION TIP

Principal/principle

A classic example of the dangers of "trick" teaching. You all remember that the head of your school is your "pal," and thus the spelling "principal." Yes? The problem is an odd one: the trick is too memorable. Young students immediately isolate the "pal" ending and reserve it for school administrators. So from now on, think of it this way: the principal is the main person in a school, as books have main or principal characters, and you earn interest on the main amount of money, the principal, in your account. The other principle means rule; we use it for the rules of academic disciplines and for our ethical and moral rules or standards. Becoming people of principle ought to be our principal goal; we should not stand on our principles nor on our principals, no matter how crabby.

[THE MEASURE OF A MAN]

Fred Hogworthy, chair of English and American Literature at MCU, offered me a tenure-track job as associate professor of rhetoric before I sat down. He looked a little sad when I arrived, but it was June, and he must have regretted the time away from his boat and summer gardens, the standard research materials for senior faculty in the humanities. He was wearing a blue and white seersucker suit his wife had bought for him at Brooks Brothers about the time of the Kent State riots, before his blond hair had faded and his face had gone permanently red. He was old enough to be my father, and his shape was enough like mine to suggest a relationship. His eyes were blue, not a match with my eyes, but this difference was not definitive according to Mendel and his peas. I could not rule him out, except that I knew he wasn't my father because I had finally met my so-called father the week before. But I'd spent my whole life sizing up my elders, trying them on for size, and I didn't know how else to take the measure of a man. Despite my intention to despise MCU and all affiliated, I liked Fred Hogworthy immediately. His office was a modest ten-by-twelve desk-chair-shelving-the-window-doesn't-open-let-me-clear-off-a-chair-for-you place on the sixth floor of one of MCU's many concrete towers. He offered me a drink and then grimaced: summer, no staff. He was plagued by the idea of having to travel to an automated dispensary where he would find himself without the correct change. Instead, he cranked open a file drawer and pulled out a huge clot of paper, which he dumped into a plastic trash can. "Now I can say I've been through the resumes we have on file." Apparently, he and I had taken the same speed-reading course. That was how I got through the language-acquisition and semiotics journals every month. "Of course, we'll have to pretend to conduct a national search for someone with--what did you do at McClintock? Seven years? Someone with seven years' experience and--how many books have you done? Two? Two books on the teaching of language skills." He smiled and looked at his wrist, where his wife had forgot to attach his watch. "Before you leave campus, you should meet Eleanor--have you met her yet? Redhead? Knows everything about Cervantes, though she's still waiting for another human being to read Quixote. Eleanor Villegas. She will head up the search. She can round up the usual suspects in a week. She's awfully good at it. Bound to find us a Nigerian poetess with a linguistics degree from the Sorbonne on a postdoc at Yale." This alarmed him. If that poet didn't get the job, she'd have grounds for legal action. "We'll have to insert something administrative into the job description--tracking fluency rates or assessing second-language retention--so we can announce a preference for candidates familiar with MCU systems and curriculum. You must have picked up our way of doing things by now. After all, McClintock is right around the corner from us." He meant "in our shadow." He looked at his wrist again, then at my face. "What time is it? President Derby wants to meet you at four." He pronounced the president's name Darby, as if to ally him with England and the horse race run at the Epsom flats, not the Kentucky Derby. It was Hogworthy's only apparent affectation. Everyone in Massachusetts knew the man as Nervy Derby, failed candidate for the U.S. Senate, who had returned to MCU but had not given up his public platform; I mean, he literally had a platform built in his office. Derby was remembered as a vicious debater with an impolitic knack for articulating a crowd's deeply repressed hatreds and fears. But he was best remembered for his obsession with his height. Throughout the course of his campaign he was plagued by questions about variations in the public record on this matter, until one day a reporter challenged him to a test of the tape, which he had kindly brought along. To that point in the campaign, Derby had called homeless people bums, referred to working women as displaced moppers and shoppers, vowed to turn public schools into sweatshops like the ones where the Mexicans make our clothes, and promised to get the scary African stuff out of Boston's African-American neighborhoods. And he was at 60 percent in the polls and rising. But then he called the reporter with the measuring tape to the stage, saying, "Unless I've shrunk along with the brains of most Americans, I stand five feet tall." He had wavered. Earlier in the campaign, he'd gone on record at five foot one. The MCU public relations people had him at five two. With cameras rolling, the reporter tallied him up at four eleven, including his shoes. And Thomas Derby lost his bid for the Senate by that inch or two. Massachusetts voters admired him, but they could no longer trust him, even after a retired director of the Bureau of Standards and Measures performed a "scientific calibration" in an MCU physics lab with Derby on a stretcher. When he returned to MCU, Thomas Derby had his office moved from the colonial mansion where his predecessors had resided to the top floor of Inifiti Towers, where the presidential desk and chair were installed on a foot-high dais near the windows overlooking his kingdom and all that fell beneath its shadow. Visitors were never invited onto the stage. And when Hogworthy and I got there, the curtain was drawn. Beside the closed oak door, an armed security guard with a West Indian accent said, "The man is not here for you, man," and he tipped his nightstick in its holster, directing us to a phalanx of young staff assistants who responded to our request for a meeting with Derby by huddling with their datebooks. After a lot of whispering and the sound of a single page being torn from a book, a young woman yelled, "July twenty-seventh at one-thirty," and the serum broke up. Hogworthy led me to his car in an underground garage. "I hope you can make it. It's a Saturday, I think. Where did you park?" He was evaporating. What did I expect? It was the tenth day of June. The academic calendar ignores the principles of nature; summer arrives weeks before the solstice. He'd offered me a job. "Take some time to think it all over, Mark." He had started his engine. I had to lean down and stick my head in the window to hear him. "Right now, you're Joan of Arc. Derby wants to be the one who pulls you out of the fire. But someone else is getting broiled as we speak. You know how things are on campuses now. The next political martyr is right behind you, and she might be a woman with a degree in a real discipline. I mean, take some time before you sign up with us. But remember, you're a white man who wants a job in the Boston market. You basically teach spelling." He was staring through his windshield at the cinder-block wall where the words "Faculty Only" were printed in yellow paint. But he was seeing blue, the smooth surface of a small bay bending beneath the bow of his boat. "It's a good life, Mark." I agreed, and I accepted the job. "And wear something better than what you've got on today when you meet him next month. There'll be a press conference." He fingered his lapel. "A dark suit? Anyway, something less poignant than this ingenuous artifact I wear." He waved, patted my elbow, and he was gone, rather like my father, I thought.

SPELLING TIP

Look for relationships among irregular words

Despite what you've heard, English spelling is not a nightmare of exceptions and inanities. Almost 90 percent of our commonly used words can be spelled according to the rules. But there are some oddities. Fortunately, they are rarely singular. Our job as spellers is to reunite these apparent strangers. For instance: science is easy to remember, right? So introduce science to its knowledgeable relatives: science/conscience/conscious/fascinating. You see, if you think about the words you often misspell, you will uncover commonalities. For example: independence or independence? tendency or tendency? cemetery, cemetery, cemetery? The truth is they are all e words, as if to remind us that we have a tendency to be independent, though we are only independent in the cemetery. And finally, for now, remember that we misspell some words because we misunderstand them. A classic problem for spellers: is it definetly? definately? definitly? definetely? What is the root word here? We assume it is "define," and we are wrong. The root is finite, limited, of certain measure. Add a prefix--use de- or in--and then add the suffix -ly (which begins with a consonant, so we won't be dropping the final e of the root), and we are infinitely more definite than we were before. So, be conscious of, fascinated by, and conscientious about the definitely infinite connections we have yet to discover among words, which, like people, have a natural tendency toward interdependence.

[OWNERSHIP]

Fred Hogworthy gave me the last line of my story: I got the job! But I didn't understand a word of it, really. I was in the famous student position of trying to read between the lines or get beneath the text and dredge up some deep meaning. This was not a complaint. I got the job. I'd finally met my father. I had everything I needed. But I was not looking forward to it, as if my life was no longer ahead of me. No, on the afternoon of 10 June, I was only looking forward to dinner with Paul Pryor, who would tell me that I didn't belong at MCU, which was just what I didn't want to hear. I'd heard enough. I heard enough during the first ten days of June to know that stories do not always end well and people do not always end up in agreement. I will take you to dinner with Paul, but first, let's just stand at the window and review the items on the menu. Are you with me? The first thing you should see is my house. I bought my house because it looks like a boat in dry dock. It is fifteen feet wide and not quite twenty-five feet long. It is wooden and old, and when an apple orchard was divided and auctioned off in parcels in 1873, one of the house's owners liked it well enough to have it moved here from Center Street. The front of the house was jammed into this small hill, and its sides are bowed now, like gunwales, so clapboards occasionally pop off and the roof shingles buckle in winter and stand up like folded paper hats. The gabled back end is balanced high above the sloping lawn on a porous stack of stones, and sometimes I sit in the kitchen expecting a flood tide to sweep over the banks of the Ipswich River and take us away. We face the Atlantic, and we often smell it, but the distance to the open ocean is not navigable. There are several houses, the odd apple tree, a trafficky street, and a milk-and-beer store between the window and the river basin, and from there it is two miles of marsh as the egrets fly to the white dunes and vast tidal flats of the barrier beach. We are thirty miles north of Boston in this town of ten thousand. Ipswich is famous for its clams. Whenever I dig up a patch of my yard to plant a tree or move the perennials (which I treat like furniture, as if by rearranging my stock I can transform the disappointment I feel with my surroundings into happiness), I unearth evidence of clamshells, bone-white chips and ashy powder sifted deep into the soil. This was foretold by the wise Pest Inspector, who led me into the basement to examine evidence I'd discovered of termites in a beam, a few days after I'd bought the place in 1989. "Good news is the bugs walked outa this roadside diner fifty years ago and never came back," he said, and then he stuck his crowbar into the beam holding up the house and pried off a desiccated chunk. He banged the beam hard and smiled. "Like the sounda that. They left you plentya wood for a house this size." He was fat and small and his arms and neck and head were barnacled with whorls of white hair. Grandfather material. He pointed the pronged end of his crowbar at the floor like a divining rod, and then he dug up a divot of dirt and white dust. "Clamshells. They'll haunt ya here." He crushed the clot back into place. "It's what remains of the fortunes of most Ipswich families. See, diggin clams made us rich as boys. We were strong, and we could dig all day cause we wanted cars, and trips west to drink ourselves blind, and we didn't mind droppin a roll at the races. Dropped outa school makin more than our fathers, who'd done as we did till their backs went tender and their knees stiffened and they took up as postmen and pest inspectors. Wasn't a mother in town who could find fault with her son workin harder than a horse and buyin her hats, and besides, there was often a sister or two gonna need a weddin down the line. Our earnins broke our fathers' pride. In the end, broke our mothers' hearts with gamblin debts or drink. And usually married the sisters off to our clammin pals, keepin it all in the family." He wanted to get back above ground. "A man's family's nothing more than the foreseeable future." I led him out to the backyard, where there were four or five thousand bees living in a tar-paper toolshed. He told me his sister kept bees, and I was hoping he might send her by to collect a free gift. "In New Hampshire," he said. "She ran away in the forties to join the Shakers up in Canterbury. Then she died." It seemed a brutally efficient way to tell the story of a life. It was a defense; he didn't want to answer any questions about her or about the Shakers. I knew how he felt. The Shakers meant trouble to me, too. He expressed his gratitude for my silence by kicking in the walls of the toolshed. Then he grabbed my arm and rushed us into the cab of his truck. "Bees hate dirt." They'd tracked us to the truck, so he put on his windshield wipers and drove to the end of the block. "Give'm an hour or two. They'll move on. It's your house now, not theirs." Suddenly, I wanted to tell him about my father. He'd left his wife and kids for the Shakers twice. The first time he left was almost twenty years before I was born, in the late spring of 1941, about the time the sister of the future Pest Inspector packed her bag and the termites moved out of the house that was now mine. But what did this man want with one more broken shell of a family? So I jumped out of the truck and waved. Then I stood at the end of the street and stared at my unseaworthy hive of a home. The bees were buzzing like electrical wires in heat, but I could hear the familiar ring of my telephone--once, twice, machine engaged, message played, recording under way. Shore-to-ship communication. I wandered down to the river.

PUNCTUATION TIP

Solving the mystery of the apostrophe

Most Americans cannot use the apostrophe correctly. In fact, the government may have to step in soon and create a commission to install apostrophes in sentences, a logical extension of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Until then, forget everything you were told. It is not about ownership. Sure, the man's sweater belongs to the man, but does the man's wife? And is it the kid's father or the kids' father or the kids' fathers? And you all remember the problems with irregular plurals: is it the women's room or the womens' room? The truth is, an apostrophe is always a sign of something lost. For contractions, we use an apostrophe to show a loss of letters: We're here! Where's he going? Well, with nouns that are somehow related (man/wife; kid/father), we can express the relationship with "of" or "of the" and never need an apostrophe: the wife of the man; the father of the kid, the father of the kids, or the fathers of the kids. If you want to abbreviate this, you make three changes: drop "of" or "of the," put an apostrophe at the end of the second noun (and add an s unless there is one before the apostrophe), and switch the order of the two nouns: the man's wife; the kid's father; the kids' father; the kids' fathers. This will work for most nouns. (People are the exceptions. Henry James's novels might confound you, as can all of the Jameses' tomes, but do not give up. Look again. You can avoid the confusion by reading one of the short stories of Henry James.) Don't let apostrophes defeat you; simply restore the words to the order they were in before the loss occurred. The words of Jesus are exceptional because they are Jesus' words; the room of the women is the women's room; and the father of the children will be the children's father. There is no mystery here. We must take possession of what was lost.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2002

    Wonderful Book!

    This book is art. It is intelligent and fun and educating. I loved the grammar lessons at the end of the chapters that tied into the stories. The insights to academia in the age of political correctness are sad but true. I'm recommending this book to all my friends.

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