"A dark, suburban fantasy . . . richly funny, even whimsical, and bizarrely familiar." The New Yorker
In the seaside community of Donald Antrim's Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, the citizens are restless. The mayor has fired stinger missiles into the Botanical Garden reflecting pool, and his public execution was a messy affair. As these hawkish suburbanites fortify their houses with deadly moats and land mines, a former third-grade teacher named Pete Robinson steps forward with a tenuous bid to replace the mayor. But can anyone satisfy the terrible will of the people? By turns funny and phantasmagorical, fiercely intelligent and imaginative, Donald Antrim's story of suburban civics turned macabre is a new American classic.
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About the Author
Donald Antrim is the critically acclaimed author of Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers, and The Verificationist, as well The Afterlife, a memoir about his mother. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, he has also been the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Public Library. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
SEE A TOWN
stucco-pink, fishbelly-white, done up in wisteria and swaying palms and smelling of rotted fruits broken beneath trees: mango, papaya, delicious tangerine; imagine this town rising from coral shoals bleached and cutting upward through bathwater seas: the sunken world of fish. That’s what my wife, Meredith, calls the ocean. Her father was an oysterman. Of course, that trade’s dead now, like so many that once sustained this paradise. Looking from my storm window, I can see Meredith’s people scavenging the shoreline. Down they bend, troweling wet dunes with plastic toy shovels: yellow, red, blue. The yellow one, I know, belongs to Meredith’s mother. I want to call to Helen, to wave and exchange greetings, but I know she’ll never acknowledge me after the awful things that happened to little auburn-haired Sarah Miller, early last week, down in my basement.
The diggers make their shabby way up the coastline. Who would’ve imagined a subsistence industry erected around the magical properties of dead sea creatures? But it’s true. Look inland. There’s the converted elementary school with wall clocks endlessly proclaiming three o’clock. It’s a factory now. They’re in there, day and night, making starfish fetishes and totems of cowry, sea cucumber, washed-up wood. I can hear crunching routers shaping precious black coral into the rings and charms everyone around here wears, and I hear the lawn-mower growl of a dozen diesels parked outside the school and giving extra electricity through high-voltage cables blackly snaked beneath the jungle gym, across the basketball blacktop, around the chain-link fence wrapping the tennis courts.
At center court, a woman wearing whites lofts a ball; it captures day’s brilliant light glancing off the hurricane flood-control canals along South Main—the intercoastal grid: deep, long arms of gator-plagued water crisscrossing landfill. The woman’s racket cannonades the ball into the opposing court. It sails, bounces. There’s no one there, just balls. The woman owns a children’s clothing store on Pettigrew. I hoist my binoculars and close-focus on grit streaking her mirror-tinted sunglasses, on clay dust rising in explosive mushrooms around her shuffling feet. And there are gray smudges on her box-pleated tennis skirt, clay scuffed from the playing surface by impacting tennis balls, sweatily transferred to her hand, wiped absently, wetly away in the radiant summer heat ushering ozone’s traces sweetly beneath advancing clouds.
Afternoon rain, here it comes out of the west. The woman serves, the rain approaches; and now the school cafeteria door—newly painted a rich midnight blue, which may or may not be significant—opens; a man peers up and out at the coming wall of water. I can see his heavy face. He’s Ray Conover, whose wife, Miriam, died so horribly when Jim Kunkel made that sorry, stupid show of indiscriminately lobbing Stinger missiles into the Botanical Garden reflecting pool. Many picnickers died that day. I recall Ray walking up Main, oblivious to traffic, blood-soaked and carrying his wife’s corpse.
This was at summer’s end, only a short while ago, right around the time school should’ve begun but didn’t because, of course, we lost the schools when the taxpayers elected to defund the system.
It was a black hour. We got together—the board members and teaching faculty still on payroll and fit to head class—and decided to hold school out of our own pockets if necessary, but were subsequently unable to settle on a suitable physical plant for pre-, lower-, and middle-school sections. It wasn’t that we needed lots of space. We didn’t. We had only a handful of kids, and could reasonably have adopted a Little Red Schoolhouse approach. But all of us, Meredith, myself, Doug, Marty, Allan, Simone, everybody—we all believed in the compartmentalization of study topics and the enhancement of student self-esteem through upward, graded progression. Bio one year, chem the next. We didn’t want to let go of that. So we insisted on grade-designated classrooms with separate sections for electives, even though we knew certain courses would have only two or three enrollees, or one, or none.
We were afraid. We were overwrought.
Today, sitting here in my padlocked attic, with a heap of class notes to prepare and these “Extra Wide Angle” precision-optical field glasses to spy around with—today I’m not sure I’d favor drawing and quartering an ex-mayor and Chamber of Commerce volunteer. That’s what we did to Jim Kunkel after the Stinger incident. For my part, let me say, right here and now, I’m sorry for the role I played in the kangaroo court that assembled outside Jim’s Dune Road condominium.
Then again, what could I do? The demands of civic discourse are difficult. Cooperation and conviviality are rewarded in many ways. I wanted a schoolhouse. I was thinking of the kids when Jerry Henderson and Bill Nixon and some other Rotary guys greeted me beneath the streetlamps. They well knew my journeyman-historian’s acquaintance with the rack, the wheel, the iron maiden, and so forth. I’d given a talk, only days before, on an array of such devices, at a Rotary lunch. My intention was to draw parallels between ancient and modern concepts of punishment and guilt, and to demonstrate a few of the ways contemporary society has internalized, even subtly institutionalized “The Barbarity of the Past,” which was the title of my talk.
I was hoping to say something about the way we live. It was clear to me, though, during the question-and-answer period, that the real effect of my lecture had been pernicious. Should I have seen it coming, that starry night outside Jim’s Dune Road home, when Jerry and Bill and those bully boys clapped their hands on my back and said, grinning, “Hey, it’s Mr. Executioner”?
Likewise, how much responsibility must I bear for what eventually, inevitably occurred, simply because I suggested using some Toyotas and Subarus parked nearby, in lieu of horses?
Better, perhaps, not to ask. Anyway, I have lecture notes to prepare. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing, it’s work God gave me to do, instead of gazing out my window at the clothing store owner’s radiant brown body. How morbid, this voyeurism of mine. It’s a sickness: low-grade agoraphobia merged with a troubling fixation on rain running from tile roofs into curbside gutters clogged with rotting vegetation.
They back up, the gutters, choking muck. The skies blacken, moisture descends, canals rise, lawns puddle, the unswept streets slowly fill. Everything, houses and stores, gas stations and banks, all the landmarks of my happy life in this place I love—everything seems to be sinking. How sad things seem then. I half expect to see reptiles emerging openmouthed from bay windows, snakes dripping from aluminum mailboxes and low gratings overhanging two-car garages. It’s a scene from dreams, a watery place familiar but not familiar, home but not home, dredged from within and carrying up intimations of loss, of desire, of my increasingly intense premonition of death by drowning.
It remains to be seen if today’s showers will fall hard enough, or last long enough, to have this effect of transforming the world.
Here’s something to indicate a grim forecast: Ray Conover, slouching among the diesels ganged and snarling outside the ex-school—my ex-school—walls, shutting down motors, making the day quiet enough to hear a distant bell buoy irregularly pealing from seas that are surely rising. And from closer, the echoes of tennis balls solidly struck. I’d not, until now, noticed the sound of these collisions. The woman’s racket arcs upward toward a furry ball traveling its vertical course to the apex of stillness. The hit is made, the ball rockets. An incalculable instant later, I hear whomp.
Does she realize she’s on the verge of getting drenched? Maybe from behind her silver, locust-eye lenses, the world looks weatherless.
Ray fiddles with a diesel machine. He doesn’t look well to me. His trousers are too short and his shirt is torn. Rangy beard creeps down his neck. He might be an overweight, sunburned wino, loafing away the day. Ray Conover, however, is no bum; he’s a widely published statistical oceanographer specializing in subtropical coastal ecosystems. I assume he’s at the old school in a consulting capacity and that he’s only out in the yard performing menial engine-maintenance tasks as a favor to someone inside. Or as an excuse to escape the relentless crunching and grinding going on in there. It must hurt him to watch his beloved reef get pounded to trinkets.
I have a trinket from the reef. It’s a ring of polished black coral, nice-looking actually, clean and simple and altogether elegant, though sizes too large for any of my fingers. It’s a gift from Meredith—otherwise I’d probably’ve jettisoned it by now. I don’t believe in talismans, and frankly I find the water and fish cults growing up around here more than a little irksome. For example? When I jokingly remarked to Meredith that the ring might serve as a sexual device, she said, “Please don’t blaspheme, okay?”
We’d just finished dinner. It was a weeknight. It seemed tiresome to point out the fact that blasphemy implies faith. At any rate, my wife’s gift, in its miniature custom box lined in indigo velvet and lidded in coarse plasticine material resembling a horseshoe crab’s exoskeleton, came as a surprise. She said, “You don’t have to be sarcastic, Pete. It’s just a little present. That’s all it is.”
“Thank you, hon.”
“It’s black coral.”
“It’ll protect you.”
I replaced it in its case, then cleared the dinner dishes, making sure to empty the fish bones into the disposal, where Meredith couldn’t get at them in order to self-induce another of her ichthyomorphic trances.
But back to the Kunkel business. I can’t get it out of my mind. I keep seeing Jim’s face, lit red by taillights, in the long moments before the lines snapped taut, while Bill Nixon tried and retried to start his fume-spewing, out-of-tune Celica. It was all so profoundly uncomfortable; there was nothing to do but toe the grass and stare up at the stars in the sky, and listen to that revving and choking, and, of course, to Jim Kunkel, trussed, bound, spread out and spread-eagle on his belly, weeping. Heavy nylon test, the kind sport fishermen around here use to haul in tarpon, radiated from Jim’s wrists and ankles, ran across grass and Jim’s beautiful Japanese rock garden to the back bumpers of cars poised to travel different directions. I wanted to tell Jim it would be over quickly, that it wouldn’t hurt. In fact I suspected otherwise. I was particularly concerned over the use of fishing line for a heavy-stress operation like this. Leaders might hold, or snap, in any of a wide range of infuriating combinations. Success depended on a clean, even pull, with no lurching—just like hauling aboard a big fish.
After a while it became clear that Nixon’s engine was flooding; and, as well, the battery was at risk, grinding down, so Jerry Henderson wisely suggested, “Bill, give it a rest.” The other guys turned off their motors too. It was agreed to wait five minutes, then try again. By the shrubs, in the driveway, at road’s edge, men huddled: Jerry and Bill, Dick Morton, Abraham de Leon, Tom Thompson, Terry Heinemann, Robert Isaac. Did they hear Jim’s sobbing? It occurred to me to go to Jim and rest my hand on his shoulder, to hold him or wipe his forehead, possibly scratch an itch if he felt one. That seemed right. Yes. And to apologize: for the sentence, for the delay in carrying it out, for whatever.
“Pete,” Jim whispered, as if prescient.
“Jim?” I glanced around at the other men. Had they heard Jim call my name? Would talking to the condemned man affect my status among them? But no. No one seemed to notice me edging discreetly toward the ex-mayor. No one seemed to see my body haloed in dim light spilling yellowly from Jim’s bug-deterrent porch bulb.
“An angel, I’m in heaven,” Jim said.
“It’s me, Jim. Pete.” I came close to him. I could’ve reached down and touched him.
“My friend,” he said, shaking his outstretched hands to indicate the lines knotted there. “They’re cutting me.”
What use describing the necessity of secure bonds, the mechanics of tugging as opposed to jerking? “Sorry,” I told him. I noticed a growing crowd murmuring beyond the lawn perimeter. Spectators. Jim said, “You know, Pete, I was on the hiring committee that reviewed your application to teach third grade. How long ago was that?”
“Ours was a mayor’s office screening procedure, mind you, no actual decision authority. Purely advisory. We went over your résumé very carefully. Very carefully. What do you think we advised?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you suppose the mayor’s office told the school board about young Pete Robinson?”
“I don’t know, Jim.”
“Guess.” His neck muscles visibly strained, his head craned upward; and his hands still lightly waved—the impression was of some neurologic episode. He complained, “You’re not a lot of fun, are you? Won’t even guess.”
I figured he was probably in shock. But he spoke again, saying, “You got the job, right? Think about it.” So I did, I thought about it. And realized, or thought I realized, thinking about it, what this was all about, why we were out here doing what we were doing, why Jim’s death had to happen. Jim was no ordinary citizen. He’d once been mayor. He’d held influence over my life, over all our lives.
Now he would suffer a death consequent of dire actions, appropriate to high station: an old leader turned rogue, sundered by the people.
I knelt down close to Jim’s liver-spotted head and whispered to him, “You knew this would happen, didn’t you, old man? You did it for us. Sacrificing those families at the Botanical Garden. You knew your blood would be glue to hold this community together.”
“You’re crazy,” he sputtered as, from another part of the lawn, Jerry Henderson’s voice announced, “Gentlemen, it is time.” Car doors slammed. Tears blended with saliva at the corners of Jim’s mouth as, one by one, the automobiles’ engines did ignite—all except the Celica’s.
“Fuck,” Bill Nixon said.
From the crowd came a cry: “Jumper cables! Who’s got jumper cables?”
A minute later Abraham de Leon’s blue Dodge van advanced alongside Kunkel’s budding white hydrangeas. “Come on, Abe,” coaxed Jerry Henderson as the van growled past Jim’s driftwood mailbox and into the drive and toward him, toward Henderson, spotlit, now, in high-beam van light, waving his arms flight deck style, pointing a clear route to the stalled vehicle. I couldn’t help noticing how Abraham’s Dodge’s headlights threw Jerry Henderson’s shadow massively onto Jim’s oversized garage door: as Abraham approached, Jerry’s shadow, methodically, cryptically gesturing, grew; it loomed over us like an animate, pharaonic wall frieze.
I asked Jim, “Hey, do you know anything about Egyptian religion?”
“No. And Pete, could you please loosen these knots? I mean, if this is going to take all night?”
I watched Jerry, Bill, and Abraham fiddling with cables and plugs. I saw Tom Thompson leaning on his parked Mazda. I saw men I knew mixing with others I didn’t, all muttering to one another or looking away, as though no hogtied person lay at the center of this green place. It was as if boundaries had been painted. No one outside seemed willing to acknowledge the interior space or its contents—me and Jim—and it seemed to me, then, that this might be characteristic of what some call holy ground, and that the boundary was drawn of shame. With this in mind I said to Jim, “It’s not for me to loosen your bonds,” and began telling about Osiris King of Kings, son of Earth and Sky, who was deceived into entering his own coffin, which drifted down the Nile and was delivered to Set, King of the Underworld; and about how the corpse was cut into pieces; and how the pieces were scattered east, west, north, south, across the land; a hand here, a foot there, buried in holy graves.
“That’s beautiful,” Jim said.
Over by the umbilically linked cars, Jerry counseled, “Try her again.” Abraham de Leon juiced his V-8 to a high-RPM whine. Bill Nixon’s Celica clattered, spit, and caught. “All right!” Abe cheered, tastelessly, as he backed the van into the hydrangeas. Jerry lowered the Celica’s hood, then called out to all the drivers waiting like impatient race contestants, “Let’s do this thing!”
It was my cue to back off. Everywhere, people melted away from the center, even those already standing thirty, forty feet distant. “Get away from there,” mothers called to children. No one knew what this event might possibly involve in the way of spectator risk, so everybody got out of the yard, beyond cars, mailboxes, streetlight posts, citrus trees, deep into night’s shadow across Dune Road. Everybody but me. I was listening to Jim’s last words:
“Will you do a favor for me, Pete? After I’m gone?”
“Scatter my body, and declare those places holy.”
Cars strained, lines tugged. I said, “I don’t know, Jim. That sounds kind of heavy.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll do it.”
But enough. What’s done is done. I’m just depressing myself. It’s time to buckle down and prepare class notes and lecture outlines; or maybe, for a change, do my duty as Town Scrivener and type up these dog-eared town meeting minutes with their proposals concerning funding for the library system and regular-basis voluntary mine sweeps of Turtle Pond Park and surrounding wooded areas, to locate and physically deactivate, once and for all, the hundreds of claymores placed by Ed Benson during the spirited conflict between the Bensons and the Websters, who lived across the park from each other during the time of buildup and fortification, when almost everybody seemed to have barbed wire scrolled around his or her backyard, as well as maybe a sod- or tarp-covered pit laid deep with danger.
Copyright © 1993 by Donald Antrim