Fiction and Drama
Sam Lipsyte’s second novel, Home Land, is the story of Lewis Miner, a failed aphorist and part-time soft-drink advertiser who has taken to writing lengthy updates to his high school alumni newsletter. “It’s confession time, Catamounts,” he begins. “It’s time you knew the cold soft facts of me. Ever since Principal Fontana found me and commenced to bless my mail slot, monthly, with the Eastern Valley High School Alumni Newsletter, I’ve been meaning to write my update. Sad to say, vanity slowed my hand. Let a fever for the truth speed it now. Let me stand on the rooftop of my reckoning and shout naught but the indisputable: I did not pan out.”
Lewis’s updates languish unpublished. Ex-Principal Fontana is to blame, no longer at the helm of Eastern Valley HS (mascot: the catamount) due to a teen escort scandal, now embroiled in a dangerous affair with Jazz Loretta, the most beautiful girl in Lewis’s graduating class. Lewis’s battle to wrench some recognition for himself and his friend Gary from Fontana and their former classmates comprises the book’s narrative. In the course of this, Lewis—nicknamed “Teabag” after an incident from his sophomore year (“It hadn’t bothered me much at the time. I’d been under the impression it was some kind of a hazing ritual. What hurt was afterwards, when I still didn’t belong.”)—emerges as a darker (and lonelier) version of manic Whitman, shouting the truth about the homeland into unwilling ears. He is jeered and threatened; former football captain Phil Douglas even tells him to stay out of the mall (“It was a silly thing for him to say, Valley Cats,” Lewis comments. “No man can tell another man to stay out of the mall. That’s not how America works. That’s not what the framers intended”); but he carries on.
The excerpt below picks up at the end of Lewis’s first update. The entirety of that update appeared in Fence, v. 5, n. 2. After making the rounds of American publishers, Home Land appeared in England this past February. It will finally come out in the States as a Picador paperback original in January, 2005. That this quintessentially American novel, one of the funniest books in years, will have been available to British readers well before its appearance here, is not one of our publishing industry’s prouder moments.
Last week Gary and I decided to check out this new titty bar in town. It’s a decent joint called Brenda Bruno’s near the River Mall. The dancers are all educated so there’s no exploitation and the DJ is a connoisseur of the moody tunes I favor in the company of nude women who despise me. There we were, Gary and I, having a grand old time sipping our greyhounds, when in walked Principal Fontana. He seemed to stagger a bit, which we took for too much whisky, par for the Fontana course, until we noticed an unbelievable amount of blood pouring off the poor guy’s head. His shirt collar couldn’t soak it up fast enough and it was hard to believe he was still on his feet. He walked around the bar like that for a while, looking for all the world like a butchered zombie, or a man born old, full-sized, womb slime still on him. Nobody moved to help him and I could see the barback going for the telephone. Gary and I, we made an executive decision to seize Fontana by the elbows, guide him out to the parking lot.
“Get your filthy hands off me!” said Fontana.
“Principal Fontana,” I said. “It’s us, it’s us!”
“I don’t know you fucks,” he said. “Your faces. Where’s Loretta?”
“Jazz Loretta?” I said.
“Let him go,” said Gary.
Fontana loped across the parking lot and over the guardrails of Route Nine. We watched him weave off into darkness towards the boat basin. We stood and watched the darkness where he’d been.
“You should write this up for that newsletter,” said Gary.
“Are you nuts? Fontana’s the editor. He’ll never print it.”
“He has to print it. It happened.”
“So it’s an update?”
“Damn right it’s an update. An update is an update. The things that happen are the things that happen.”
Forgive me, Principal Fontana, but Gary has a point. Updates are updates, and it is in this spirit, assuming you survived your evening of massive blood loss on the trash slopes of the boat basin, that I know you’ll publish mine.
Not yet, apparently. Today, this came in the mail.
Cut the crap. Whatever you think you saw you didn’t see. Nobody wants to read your babble, anyway. Catamount Notes is a forum for decent people to celebrate the ongoing celebration of their lives. Hence my decision to omit your update. Save it for the Teabag Review, okay? Or maybe the Scumbag Review would be better.
PS Who the hell is Jazz Loretta? What in Jesus Christ are you talking about?
I pored over the postcard, hoped to precisely ascertain its tone, deconstruct its guiding logic, tease out its myriad tropes, but I lacked the proper training. Hate to say it, Catamounts, but we didn’t have tropes at Eastern Valley.
I called Gary, read him Fontana’s card.
“You’ve got him on the run,” said Gary. “Now’s the time to go in for the kill.”
“What are you talking about?”
“No matter what happens,” said Gary, “you must not be silenced. It’s like those poets they put in prison. They’re heroes. Be a fucking hero.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll be a hero. It’s not like they can put me in jail for writing updates.”
“You should read the paper, if that’s what you think.”
“I do read the paper.”
“You read that fascist one.”
“Laugh for me when they put you up against the wall.”
Good people, as I peruse this latest update, composed, as you can see, in the face of severe Fontanian repression, it occurs to me that I’ve taken the wrong tack. My aim continues to be an essay into the truth of my condition, and thus, the Catamount condition, but under the current Notes regime, which seems willing to support only the most craven declarations from the Eastern Valley community, it appears I’ve failed to heed an important lesson. The sole weapon against censorship is guile.
How shameful it’s come to this, though. Fontana was not always so despotic. Some of him is made of charm. Even the charmless parts, I believe, were acquired in provinces of real human pain. I could tell you some stories, true Fontana Arcana, about his master’s thesis on adolescence in postwar American literature, his brief national poker ranking, the handles of White Horse delivered weekly to his house by ex-Catamount Sousaphonist and Pittman Liquors scion Randy Pittman. I could delve into the man’s divorce after the teen escort scandal. A lead is even developing on where he buys those hideous lime-green jeans he favors in the springtime.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always had deep affection for Fontana. Back when he roamed the hallways of Eastern Valley there was a sort of compass-less majesty about the man you couldn’t help but admire. He’d maybe lit out from one of his busted selves years before, wandered tundras of indecision, kept himself alive in bleak altitudes, battled the elements within and without, but never found that hidden pass to New Fontana.
I could tell you about the time he pulled me into his office for a private audience. It was late in my junior year. I’d been idling near the juice machine with Gary. Gary had a lot of theories in those days. He was a fan of ancient astronauts, especially their work in the entertainment industry. Today’s lecture hinged on Thurman Munson, the great Yankee catcher of our youth. Munson had not plunged to his death piloting a twin engine airplane, but was living under an assumed identity, supervising a new secret baseball program in the Soviet Union.
“That’s bullshit,” I said. “I sold his widow a spaghetti spoon for our Weebalo fundraising drive six years ago.”
“Which proves what?”
“She was a widow, man. Munson was dead.”
“Or else he was in fucking Leningrad. Plus, there’s no such thing as a spaghetti spoon. It’s just the name they gave to some piece-of-junk ladle.”
Now Fontana glided by, his usual afternoon rounds. The corridors had a cool empty beauty he must have savored. His polo shirt was nearly the teal of the walls. A pair of golf cleats, slung from his neck, swayed on their laces.
“Boys,” he said.
“Sorry,” said Gary. “We’ll go to the library.”
“No,” said Fontana, “just listen to this.”
He read from a paperback wedged in his hand:
“They said, ‘You have a blue guitar
You do not play things as they are.’
The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’”
Fontana snapped the book shut, stroked his cleats.
“Wallace Stevens. Not bad for an insurance executive.”
“My cousin has a blue guitar,” said Gary. “A Gibson Explorer.”
“Are things changed upon it?” said Fontana.
“Yeah, when he plays it through a Marshall stack.”
“Funny child,” said Fontana, and spun himself, clumsily, upon the tiles. He always seemed his weakest forcing whimsy.
“Miner,” he said.
“Yes, Mr. Fontana.”
Fontana had a Velcro dartboard in his office, a wire basket full of golf balls. A framed postcard painting of an old-time gunslinger hung on the wall behind his desk. Fontana caught me studying the man, the nickel-plated pistols shoved in gabardine pants, the mournful whiskers.
“That’s Bat Masterson,” he said. “Lawman, quick-draw artist, killer. He was also, in later years, an accomplished sports journalist. Died typing.”
“Well-rounded,” I said.
“Bet your ass,” said Fontana. “Sorry. Language.”
“I don’t mind,” I said. “You should hear my father.”
“Take a load off.”
Fontana slid down in his district Naugahyde. I took a swivel stool near the window. Chip Gallagher’s father, Batch, mowed the ballfield, rode high on his machine, trailed oil smoke. His windbreaker snapped, fluttered, presumably in wind.
“Good old Batch,” said Fontana. “Know what he’s doing?”
“Mowing the ballfield?”
“He’s making the smell of fresh-cut grass.”
“We’ve never really conversed, have we?”
“You’ve told me to go back to class a few times.”
“I don’t remember.”
“I should remember. That’s the thing. I want to be involved in your lives. Or I think I do. But then, really, when I look into my heart, I’d rather be on the driving range, or getting drunk, or my wick dipped. Is this shocking you?”
“Some nights,” I said, “I picture myself naked, covered in napalm, running down the street. But then it’s not napalm. It’s apple butter. And it’s not a street. It’s my mother.”
“Right,” said Fontana. “I knew I could talk to you. I read your file. You’re one of those not uncommon cases. You don’t really fit into any category. You’re pretty bright, but no student. You hate jocks but you do appreciate a good sporting event. You deplore violence, except against the state. You’re sort of bitter, but beyond the more stupid varieties of rage. You think of pussy all the time. Not just pussy. Breasts. Butts. Even the occasional schlong. It’s all a flesh swarm in your mind. You think you’d like to be some kind of artist, but you have no idea what that means, and you’re afraid you’re too dumb, which could be true.”
“That’s in my file?”
“No, just scores and grades. Extracurriculars, tardies. The rest is extrapolation. Professional guesswork. How am I doing?”
“Perfect score. Were you like me in high school?”
“No, not at all. In fact, I think I’m more like you now.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Our ages are not our ages, you know? Adolescence, post-adolescence, it’s not just a matter of body hair. They’re philosophical positions. I wrote a thesis about this once. Sort of. Didn’t finish. Should have finished. Goddamnit, Miner, most of these kids at school here, I hate them. They’re all phonies. I want to rebel against them. They don’t understand me. How do I connect with them?”
“That’s what I thought. There’s no way, really. And really, it’s not my fucking job. My job is to make sure you go to class. That you don’t blow dope on school grounds. Speaking of which, I know about the maintenance shed. Stay the hell away from there.”
“What’s with the jargon? The argot? Are you crestfallen you don’t have a war? A police action? Something muddy and devastating? Some absurd carnage you can hang your disaffection on?”
“Do you know how idiotic that is? How horrible napalm is? Or was? Or is?”
“Sir, I do, sir.”
“Well, then, that’s good. You can go on back to class.”
“I have a free.”
“I took you from your free? I’m sorry for that.”
“You can tell people what we talked about. I don’t give a damn. I’d rather you didn’t, but it’s your call.”
“I think I’ll leave it here.”
“A wise and generous decision.”
Gary was still waiting by the juice machine.
“What happened?” he said.
“The maintenance shed is a no go.”
“Shit,” said Gary.
Point being, Catamounts, I could write reams on my former confidant Fontana. But he’s a different man now. He’s not that tender teen trapped in a slack duffer’s body whose misery spoke to us so. His stewardship of the Notes has warped him somehow. How else to explain the latest outrage? Perhaps you saw it in your mails, Catamounts, in the latest Notes, as you nooked up on the sofa for a visit with your cougar kin. Some alums had acquired new coordinates of toil on the corporate slave grid. Others were celebrating the advent of poop-smeared approximations of themselves. Sure, I myself had nearly tossed the issue aside in favor of a longish essay on the return of moral elegance I’d clipped from MindStyle, one of my not-so-free free magazines, when I saw it, that lone boxed item beside the ad for Pittman’s Liquors (“Don’t even try to get up — We deliver!”). The headline read: TEABAG SPEAKS.
That bastard. This was worse than the blackball. He’d fiddled with my prose. Here, in its entirety, for those who missed it, is what some ghoulish version of me, concocted in the recesses of Fontana’s obscenity of a mind, supposedly wrote:
Hi, everybody! It’s Lewis Miner, class of ’89, and I’d just like to send a shout out to all you Catamounts and let you in on what’s been happening to the old Teabag. I’m doing real well working for a big soft drink company (free sodas on me, friends!) and I’ve got a nice spread out here in Eastern Valley. I still see some of you Catamounts around town, which is always a pleasure. Mostly I just want to say whassup to Principal Fontana, who got me through some rough spots back in the crazy old days. I’ll never forget you, Dr. F! Peace out, Teabag.
The “peace out” was an especially nice touch on the part of “Dr. F.” (How’s that dissertation coming, dickfart?) Damn near diabolical. He might have destroyed me in so many ways but he opted for the foolproof: wholesale update rape. Nice try, Fontana, you would-be plow mule, but I will not be broken. One cannot violate verity without consequence, pal.
Plow-mule? Yes, Catamounts. The other day Gary picked me up in the Retractor Mobile.
“I’ve got a gift for you,” he said.
We drove down Hoyt, turned off Mavis near the county line, parked near a house on a cul de sac called Drury Court. The place sat back behind some birch trees, a modified ranch. We sneaked up to a shrub-mobbed window.“Consider this woe compensation,” said Gary.
“I’m not woeful.”
“Just fucking look.”
It was a big room with a shag carpet, antique lamps, a cabinet TV from days when entertainment lurked in the guise of furniture. Fontana was on his hands and knees, yoked to a vacuum cleaner, naked beneath his harness. We could hear the suck and whine of the machine. A whip tip of knotted rawhide kissed his strap-reddened back. Fontana plowed out of view and now came the bare lovely legs of the living room tiller. I jutted my head past the hedges for a better look.
The years had been kind to her. Slavish, even. Black eyes still beamy. Her body a pale and beautiful root.
Her sorry domination of the educator Fontana, her slack way with the bullwhip, the giddy-ups, it was not good theater. Probably this pair would have been laughed out of any decent dungeon in the Northeast. But their joy looked true. Truer than mine, the peeper’s. I pulled back from the window. The Hoover howled, revved.