Waterloo: A Novel

Waterloo: A Novel

by Karen Olsson

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312425593
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 11/14/2006
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Karen Olsson is a senior editor for Texas Monthly and a former editor of The Texas Observer. She lives in Austin, Texas. Waterloo is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt


By Karen Olsson


Copyright © 2005 Karen Olsson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-28626-4

Chapter One

His ability to put tasks in sequence was the first thing to go. William Stanley Sabert, the former congressman, ambled into the kitchen, carrying in his good hand, the left one, a glass tumbler. With the weaker hand, the only partially recovered right, he pressed a sheaf of papers to his ribs, but not carefully enough: his attention slipped and then the papers slipped, they fluttered to the floor. Pick them up, he told himself. He could not. Certain capillaries in his brain had gone dry; they dangled like shrunken empty gloves. He couldn't pick up the legal-pad pages he'd covered with notes or the hearing transcripts or-where did that come from?-the Christmas card that slid out from the sprawl. The notion of retrieving all of it loomed and then faded, as showers of tiny particles, boluses, bits and pieces of the midbrain clot that had just exploded inside his head, infiltrated the network of his vessels. He couldn't pick up the pages on the floor because first he would have had to put the drinking glass down. He would have had to lean over. He would have had to reach for the papers and clasp them with his good hand. The sequence of steps had escaped him.

It was his third stroke, though, and he did have an idea of the enemy. He fought back. He'd come into the kitchen to fix something to eat. He intended to do that. No matter that making a sandwich was a more complex task than fetching the papers that had fallen. He opened the refrigerator and set his drinking glass on the top shelf next to the orange juice. He closed the refrigerator. He took a bag of English muffins from the breadbox, pulled open the oven door, and placed the bag inside the oven. Next, tuna fish-but as he straightened himself Sabert saw only color, throbbing reds and greens. When the room returned, pale and blurry, his eyes were flooded. He touched his sleeve to his face.

Dishes sat in the sink; errant cashews and flakes of cereal lurked under the cabinets; mice lived in the breadbox. And that was just the kitchen. There were also the hairs clouding the bathroom floor, the towels heaped in a corner, the bottle of chardonnay forgotten in the toilet tank. A shelf in the bedroom closet had collapsed, and a hail of campaign buttons and umbrellas and old photographs and the silver serving forks from his first marriage (Delia had taken the spoons) had landed among shoes and old pine inserts. For all his storied acuity, his talent for clarification, for cutting through legislative knots in a few incisive strokes, Will Sabert had always been a force of entropy.

And now these papers spilled across the linoleum. He'd collected them to show the reporter, to help explain the work that had engaged him over the past year. What a relief, a pleasure, to have stumbled upon such a project, one that gave shape to his solitary days. High time he revealed it to someone. A legal method: he had discovered it, having devoted to that end many weeks of research, quite a lot of sorting through precedent and records of international tribunals. A method to end all wars, this was, entailing minimal adjustments to current statutes and treaty agreements. He had condensed the argument in favor of it, that is to say the argument for ending war, to a simple, watertight petition that could be understood by any high school student. It was clear, after all, that the wars of the twentieth century had been unjust, unnecessary, and, without question, inefficient from the point of view of costs. He'd hoped to live long enough to expand his premise into a book, but lately he'd begun to fear otherwise. Hence his plan to go over it all with the reporter. There was some doubt in his mind, though, as to whether the reporter had already come and gone.

The first stroke had been almost twenty years earlier: a tingling on the way to the cafeteria, and by the time he sat down to eat, his hand and arm had gone numb. He pretended to have lost his appetite. By later that afternoon he was back to normal. He went on working just as before.

The next one had followed his retirement. A headache, unlike any headache he'd ever had. Icicles splitting his skull into pieces. A trip to the hospital, a poor prognosis. That time his whole right side crumpled, and proper names hid themselves. He could say the words son and daughter but the names of his own children wouldn't give themselves up.

Now his mind was beset by a cascade, a closet shelf falling, an avalanche of old possessions. His children, his mother, his first bicycle, his dog. The fountain he and his brother had ridden their bicycles to on the terraced grounds of the state Capitol, a fountain long since bulldozed to make way for office buildings and parking garages. Its water had spouted from pink gargoyles' mouths: there, one terrible hot day when he was ten or eleven, an older boy trying to hawk a few bruised peaches had taken a swing at Will, after Will had called him a capitalist. He dodged the punch. His little brother Robbie had gotten it instead. Smacked in the face. Bloody nose. Scared to fight, Will had grabbed Robbie's arm and run away. This was his last memory.

No one was there to see the former congressman back up against the countertop and slide down the cabinet face. His shirt caught against a drawer pull and tore; his hip fractured; his great old moppy head fell to one side and was still.

Chapter Two

The ballroom was packed and anxious. As usual there were no windows. Swags of royal-blue bunting hung above a long dais, and tacked to the bunting was a banner, red with white lettering. HARDAWAY, it read. More words below, something-something VALUES!-but Nick couldn't see the first two words for all the heads and waving arms in front of him. A cheerful crowd of the neat and tidy had filled the hotel's third-largest function room, arms touching, hairdos glistening under the television lights. People scanned the room, signaling one another with raised hands and open mouths.

Nick did not wave, nor did anyone wave to him. Having been swept up by a current pressing toward the coffee urns, he was floundering in an eddy of middle-aged women wearing scarves and stick-pins. He bobbled silently in their midst.

He was a reporter, albeit not the most dedicated. He made phone calls, he knocked on doors, he injected himself into other people's lives, into situations, at times unpleasant or terrifically dull situations that most people would take pains to avoid. Then he wrote about them for the Waterloo Weekly, an alternative newspaper specializing in music listings and futon advertisements. As Nick himself was an avoider by instinct, the going wasn't always smooth. Or even ambulatory. In work as in life, he delayed, he argued with himself. He waited for some kind of a sign. Once, he'd heard his name announced over an airport public address system, and a woman with a nice-sounding voice had instructed him to proceed immediately to gate number seventeen-this had excited him.

He covered news and politics. He'd never been a bona fide politics junkie (since the type of gossip that gave the junkies their fix, such as who might be angling to enter the next race for state comptroller, numbed his very organs), but chronicling the follies of those in power had for a time imbued him with a sense of purpose-however limited, however faltering. That sense of purpose had faded, though. The disappointments of politics were like the weather: unpredictable as the daily fluctuations were, the same seasonal patterns repeated themselves year after year, so that the only real change lay in the fact that things were slowly getting worse. Global warming, productivity slowdown, a sluggishness spreading among the citizenry, right-wingers in the ascendant. Nick schlepped around to press conferences and wrote about them in a weekly column. He tried to avoid longer assignments. At thirty-two, he had almost relinquished the idea of conducting himself with purpose, indeed was bearish on the very possibility of conducting himself at all, rather than forever feeling as if he were being dragged along behind his own life by means of a rope attached to his pants.

"Can you hear me? Is this okay?" On the dais, a lone gangly figure bent over the microphone, his cheeks pink, his long tie a pendulum, his hands in his pants pockets. He looked out at the row of cameras across the room, and a couple of cameramen raised their thumbs in reply.

Oh, to be a cameraman. The cameramen, really more like camera guys, like guys you'd invite over to watch a ball game or help build a carport, were endowed with a kind of silent geekish authority because of their equipment. Big black video cameras on six-foot tripods anchored the camera guys to a particular spot, where they belonged, where they stood with feet planted wide. Everyone else was in motion. Everyone else squeezed and nudged and if necessary resorted to outright pushing, and when they, found a spot they still weren't still; they craned their necks and bounced up on their toes. They clapped, at intervals, for no reason at all. The worst were the campaign staffers: sleep-deprived, half-deranged people with stickers on their lapels and cell phones clamped to their ears, ducking this way and that, colliding and then parting again. But even the reporters in the press area were-with the exception of the inertial Sonny Muniz, political columnist for the Standard-American-circling their territory like big dogs in a very small park.

Nick himself avoided designated press areas, media sign-in tables, question-and-answer periods. He'd never been keen on joining that particular club, and as a writer for a barely respectable publication, he wasn't quite the club's cup of tea either. He kept his notebook in his back pocket and removed it only when necessary: He didn't dress like a reporter, not like the middle-aged newspaperman in his baggy flak vest full of pens, or the television correspondent in her stiff suit. Nick wore glasses with black plastic rims and black boots and black jeans, thick dark items to offset his lack of bulk.

Over a loudspeaker music started to play: Electronic horns, electronic drumming: the theme from Rocky. Not a tune that lent itself to clapping, but people were clapping anyway, searching for the beat, eager for the show to start.

There it was: a bubble in the collective chest. Nick could feel it. The staffers, the lobbyists, the old-timers, even a few onlookers from hotel management had all gathered, not unwillingly, here in the Lamar Room with its stain-resistant wallpaper and obese chandelier. They seemed happy to be here, on tiptoes although there was nothing to see yet. No one was safe from it, even Nick, hard as he tried to keep his pulse from elevating in situations involving politicians and the Rocky theme. And what was it? Difficult to say. Something mysterious conjured like life in a test tube by this roomful of human chemicals all sweating and waiting and clapping, excited because the television cameras were here, excited because elected officials were here-jazzed by a second-rate candidate for statewide office, yes, but jazzed anyway! Never mind that the evening news and elected officials were normally subjects of ridicule. It was a bad movie that made you cry in spite of yourself. Nick was a sucker for those sentimental movie moments, and his heart was thumping now. To the theme from Rocky.

Nuh-nuh nuhhhh, nuh-nuh nukhhh.

The candidate was making his way toward the podium, accompanied by a man Nick recognized as a state senator and a woman he thought he recognized but couldn't identify. He'd seen her picture somewhere. In a cranberry-colored suit and shimmery blouse, her plucked eyebrows arching high over her eyes, her teeth flashing, she looked like an official photograph.

Nick scanned the crowd again and accidentally made eye contact with Hardaway's press secretary-a short, stolid woman who spoke in short, stern sentences, a former daily reporter and a fixture of the political scene. Looking at Nick, she pointed to the designated press area: Go. People associated with campaigns, Nick had noticed, liked to give orders. He peeped over at the reporters' area, a disagreeably small, thronged corral, and stayed where he was, pretending not to have noticed the instruction. Out of the corner of his eye he could tell the press secretary was still signaling him to move.

All right. Fine.

But blocking his path was a broad woman in a wrinkled jacket. "Excuse me," he said. The woman didn't react. He touched her jacket and tried again: "Excuse me?"

The woman turned and looked at Nick as if he were slathered in shit, then stepped several millimeters to the left. He wormed his way past her and through the audience and into the reporters' area. For the sake of something to do he took his phone from his pocket and checked its digital window for the time. On it was a picture of a question mark doing some sort of end-zone dance: missed call. Maybe from Liza.

Earlier that morning, Liza had phoned, which was not her habit. He'd been sitting there in his work area, in his socks, staring at his screen saver of busy fish, and had arrived at a decision to stretch. Lifting his arms overhead, he'd caught sight of Trixie Moss marching grimly in his direction, inclined forward and frowning, which could only mean that his last (admittedly quite lame) column had incurred her copy editor's displeasure, or that there had been some new development in her divorce proceedings. Swiftly he brought his arms down and snatched up the phone to pretend he was on a call, but instead of a dial tone he heard Liza's "Hello?"


"I didn't hear the phone ring."

"It didn't."

"But you answered it?"

"It was an accident."

"An accident."

"A good accident," he added in vain. Her voice sounded flat, and he wondered whether something had happened, and then whether somebody close to her had fallen ill, or perhaps died. Without quite intending to, he thought of Miles, a friend of hers from childhood (though very much full-grown now, brawny and carnivorous) whom she'd started dating after she and Nick had split up. He thought of Miles keeling over, of Miles giving the bucket a good manly kick. He was still working through this idea when Liza asked whether he could meet her for a drink that evening. He'd said yes: seeing her was something he wanted to do just about every evening, and he'd allowed himself, if only fleetingly, to hope that something might come of it. Yet he guessed by her tone of voice that she hadn't asked him for a drink so that they could make out afterward in front of her parked car the way he was imagining, nor was she going to disclose that Miles had unexpectedly perished, and so although he wanted to see her in general, the prospect of this particular rendervous, its purpose unclear but serious, made him queasy.

Now he flipped open his cell phone and saw that the recent call had come from his uncle. He snapped the phone shut.

The tubby; perspiring Senator Comal, who because of his untelegenic appearance and two divorces would never be tapped to run for statewide office, began his introduction. I want to tell y'all about a great man and a great leader, Comal began. Raised in a small town. Has small-town values. Educated at our state university. Enlisted in the United States Navy. Farmland Insurance. City Council. State Assembly. A wife and two children. Parents still living in the same small town. At last Comal yelled out Hardaway's name and the candidate stepped forward to the microphone, squinting a little and mugging at the row of cameras with their gaping black eyes. The clapping quickened; girlish "whoo!" noises floated up from the crowd; flashes whined and strobed.

As Nick understood it, Mark (Shares Your Values!) Hardaway had been plucked from the obscurity of a City Council in the western part of the state-having impressed the local kingmakers with his cast-iron jawline and treadmill physique, not to mention a congenial malleability when it came to his positions-and thrust into one race for State Assembly, and five years later into another for his current position, commissioner of the Department of Human Needs. Now he was running for governor. Everyone knew this already, but he hadn't yet officially announced his candidacy. To announce you had to have cameras and bunting and a speech.


Excerpted from WATERLOO by Karen Olsson Copyright © 2005 by Karen Olsson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Waterloo 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Thirty-two years old political reporter at the recently purchased Waterloo Weekly, Nick feels his world is coming to an end. First the new owners demand he and other journalists must change the tone of their writing as reporting accurate breaking news is not as important as serving the customer defined of course by the owners. His editor says Nick is failing and better improve his performance or else. His former girlfriend who he misses is engaged to someone else. Finally, his only escape, The Sunset bar is closing as the city has no room for dumps and dives since the hi-tech Yuppie explosion.............. Nick is assigned to profile newly elected Republican state legislator Beverly, who foxily ran on the values mumbo jumbo. Though married Beverly is having an affair with a gubernatorial candidate, whose muscles are bigger than his IQ. Nick¿s Uncle Bones tells him that Beverly is pushing a land deal written for her by a national developer claiming economic opportunity for everyone he ignores how the middle class will pay the tab. Knowing this and her affair are not consumer friendly, Nick thinks of ignoring them, but new reporter African-American Andrea Carter encourages him to break the story................... WATERLOO is a harsh condemnation of the government-industrial-media complex that has permeated much of American society in recent years with Austin serving as the model. The story line employs two interrelated subplots as Nick investigates Beverly while her affairs are also on display. Fans bushed with non war ¿sacrifice¿ that shrinks disposable income into the red while swallowing castor oil laws to make us better will enjoy this muckraking exposé of capital politics............. Harriet Klausner
Somer on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This book will appeal most of all to those residents (or former residents) of Austin, TX who remember what it was like before everyone and their mother discovered how cool Austin is. I wasn't expecting to like this book as much as I did, but the characterization is very strong and, while there might be a few too many plotlines, overall this book was quite enjoyable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interested in learning more of the characters' and their relationships. I plan on reading the next book.