I took Walter Kirn's book about going to Princeton, "Lost in the Meritocracy," and Andre Dubus's "We Don't Live Here anymore" with me to the islands last week, and got through them both, with pleasure and annoyance, the gratifying poles of sentiment in my reading these days.
Mr. Kirn I brought along because our 11-year-old was recently vaulted into the oligarchic path with a scholarship to a tony private school, and we aren't sure what it's likely to do to this sweet-kind child to associate with the spawn of sharp-elbowed Type A's.
Walter's book was cautionary, as he reports that he had a nervous breakdown about halfway through Princeton, but that could as easily have had to do with the copious drug intake (shrooms, coke and other sniffable, swallowable, smoke-able substances, familiar to all of us who went to college in the same decade.)
I enjoyed the book, tripping down memory lane into my own drug-addled misadventures around the same time, but since Mr. Kirn's premise is that he himself was a Type A overachiever, I realized quite soon that his experience would not be an object lesson for my son, who could care less about his own status, at least as of now. I was much more like Mr. Kirn - who was plotting his course into the East Coast Establishment when he was 10 - than my son will ever be. Like Mr. Kirn, I was already envying East Coast prep school kids from the vantage point of the puce-colored, fight-infested halls of my lower middle class, mid-western junior high school.
It is interesting to consider how ambition is totally innate, not learned.
I only wish Mr. Kirn had let us in on interactions he must have had with shamelessly charmed, God's gift to himself Michael Lewis, surely at Princeton during the same years, and also, what it was like to marry Lois Lane's real-life daughter, which Mr. Kirn went on to do.
Perhaps in a future memoir.
I turned from Mr. Kirn to Mr. Dubus, where idle pleasure turned to delicious, active annoyance.
I had picked up Mr. Dubus only because his son's widely praised recent book was not on the NYPL shelf two weeks ago. Where his should and will be, his dad's was.
My curiosity about the old man had been piqued from reading reviews of Andre III's newest book about how his writer dad abandoned the family to a life of poverty, so he (dad) could pursue literary glory and hot students.
"We Don't Live Here Anymore" is a sickening road map into the mentality of the 1970s cool guy, sub-genus literary great man. Totally phallo-centric jackass, women exist to be fucked and to clean house. The two main male characters' days always start with their wives putting out a glass of orange juice, and eggs, and the morning paper, but these guys aren't gray flannel suits from the 1950s, they are bearded and mustachioed "writers," (sorry, since Mr. Dubus really was a writer I suppose I shouldn't put that word in quotes, but I do so in attempt to visually convey what writing means to these men, something phonily sacramental.)
The main character screws around on his wife, urges her to do the same, and when she turfs him out he seduces his small liberal arts college students. He gets furious when one of them aborts his spawn, and then ends up flustered by this new generation of birth control pill taking young women who - unlike the heartbroken stay at home wife - have better things to do than bear his children and bring him OJ in the morning.
Apparently someone in Hollywood liked this POV so much they made a movie of it, with Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern. The funny thing aboiut the book is that rave review blurbs and an intro (by none other than Andre III) seem to praise Mr. Dubus for his astonishing insight into the hearts and minds of men AND women. I don't think so ...
And now, back to work, copy-edits on my cautionary true tale of a college girl in Italy, The Fatal Gift of Beauty. Almost finished.