Thursday, December 8, 2016

An Alternate White Album

What if the Beatles decided to edit their 1968 White Album down to 15 tracks? Their producer George Martin always favored such a course and maybe he was right (don't get me wrong the original LP is still a masterpiece). It's a cool thought experiment. Here's my edit:
Side One
1) Back in the U.S.S.R.
2) Dear Prudence
3) While My Guitar Gently Weeps
4) Not Guilty
5) Yer Blues
6) Piggies
7) Mother Nature's Son
Side 2
1) Cry Baby Cry
2) Julia
3) Helter Skelter
4) Why Don't We Do It In the Road?
5) Happiness is a Warm Gun
6) Long, Long, Long
7) Blackbird
8) Revolution 1
The "single record" approach makes for a more intense and aggressive album that contrasts with the madcap pace of the original. It's also more democratic. I put George's material on nearly equal par with Lennon/McCartney, including his sardonic outtake "Not Guilty."  Ending the album with "Revolution 1" felt like the perfect closer, although Ringo's "Goodnight" is the perfect ending to the double LP.
John: Six Tracks
Paul: Five Tracks
George: Four Tracks

Friday, October 28, 2016

America 2016 Part III: Watching the Wheels

I remember reading the John Lennon quote I posted below and it always stayed with me. All elections are important, especially this one.  And folks are feeling powerless and afraid. I get it.  But why all the fanaticism for leaders?  Why not just focus on improving ourselves and being better human beings?  So whether one is right, left, or center, instead of firing talking points at each other, why not just being kind as we pass each other by? Crack a joke instead. Offer a sympathetic hand on the shoulder.  We're all in this together.  

"Well, you make your own dream. That's the Beatles' story, isn't it? That's Yoko's story. That's what I'm saying now. Produce your own dream. If you want to save Peru, go save Peru. It's quite possible to do anything, but not to put it on the leaders and the parking meters. Don't expect Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or John Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself. That's what the great masters and mistresses have been saying ever since time began. They can point the way, leave signposts and little instructions in various books that are now called holy and worshiped for the cover of the book and not for what it says, but the instructions are all there for all to see, have always been and always will be. There's nothing new under the sun. All the roads lead to Rome. And people cannot provide it for you. I can't wake you up. You can wake you up. I can't cure you. You can cure you."

- John Lennon 1980

Monday, October 24, 2016

2016 World Series Preview: Cubs vs Indians

The 2016 World Series. Something's gotta give.  The Chicago Cubs are making their first appearance since 1945, going for their first World Title since 1908.  The Cleveland Indians have not won a World Series since 1948 after losses in 1954, 1995, and 1997. Their last appearance against the Florida Marlins came within two outs of a victory. 

The 2016 Cleveland Indians have youth and experience.  They steam rolled over the Boston Red Sox in the Divisional Series and easily took care of the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS.

The Cubs also cruised through the playoffs as well, overcoming a 2-1 deficit in the NLCS against the L.A. Dodgers. Their potent pitching staff of Jon Lester, Jake Arrietta, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey will be a formidable challenge for the Tribe. However, the Indians also have a strong rotation as well - and a superb bullpen.  

Odds are it will be a series dominated by pitching. 

It will be exciting to see two great baseball teams with a colorful history take the field. Despite being lovable losers for decades, the Cubs have a rich history.  I remember watching them frequently in the 1980s on WFFT Channel 55 out of Fort Wayne.  The Cubs were tough and fun to watch with Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Andrew Dawson, and Greg Maddux.

For a generation of Cleveland fans born between 1945-1975, a good season meant breaking even and not being a total embarrassment. Many, many colorful characters played at the old stadium by the lake. Highlights included hiring the first black manager Frank Robinson in 1975 and Len Barker's perfect game on May 15, 1981.  Other memories were less savory, such as 5 cent beer night on June 5, 1974 (the game ended in forfeit).

Behind manager Terry Francona, the Indians play with swagger and confidence.  A victory for the Tribe would heal the wounds of 1997 and 1954, two defeats that devastated the franchise for years.   

The eyes of the nation will be watching.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

America 2016 Part II: All He Believes Are His Eyes

I was trying to think of a Dylan song that best encapsulates the 2016 election.  I suppose you could reference "Masters of War" or "Political World" as obvious choices. But watching the debate last night, "License to Kill" suddenly played in my head.  Yeah, the lyrics pretty much get it right.  

Lyrics like "he's hell bent for destruction, he's afraid and confused" describe someone of Donald Trump's temperament.  The song keeps returning to the woman sadly observing men making a wreck of the earth could either be Hillary Clinton or perhaps all of the "nasty women" Trump's exploited over the years. 

Here's Dylan performing with The Plugz on Late Night With Letterman.  The date March 22, 1984.  After the performance Dylan attended a Celtics/Knicks game at Madison Square Garden.

License To Kill

Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please
And if things don’t change soon, he will
Oh, man has invented his doom
First step was touching the moon

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there as the night grows still
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Now, they take him and they teach him and they groom him for life
And they set him on a path where he’s bound to get ill
Then they bury him with stars
Sell his body like they do used cars

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there facin’ the hill
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Now, he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill
All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies

But there’s a woman on my block
Sitting there in a cold chill
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Ya may be a noisemaker, spirit maker
Heartbreaker, backbreaker
Leave no stone unturned
May be an actor in a plot
That might be all that you got
’Til your error you clearly learn

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled
Oh, man is opposed to fair play
He wants it all and he wants it his way

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there as the night grows still
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

America 2016 Part I: And This Is Not Our Fate

Twenty First Century Totalitarian Donald Trump may win the American presidency. It Can't Happen Here you say?  That ringing in your ears, that's history going on red alert. So we better stop and listen. 

Something is rotten in the Republic and we are like Hamlet returning home to find your nefarious uncle not only stole your mother but the whole goddamn kingdom (and probably swindled your father because that's what loooooooooosers deserve). Everything's fucked up. And we are all going crazy.

If the 1960s and Watergate triggered a national nervous breakdown, Trump presents a spiritual/existential crisis of the highest order. Like Father Karras in The Exorcist, we are first in denial of the demon's existence, but come to realize the fiend must be confronted.

In school I remember learning about the Second World War and the rise of Fascism and feeling a strong pride that America and its Allies defeated those who wanted to poison and destroy free thought. As I learned more of U.S history, I realized there's enough blood on the tracks to put the entire American experiment into question. And yet, even in my most cynical moments I would think to myself, at least America helped stop Hitler.

Tragically, it now looks like everything America fought for in the Second World War could go down the drain, may already be circling the drain.

In 1940 Winston Churchill warned of a new dark age to arise if the Third Reich prevailed, the best ideals of Western Civilization would dissolve into a dreamlike darkness. 

Now 75 years later democracy is becoming more of a punchline than a sacred idea. Authoritarian types are on the rise.  Give me Putin over Pussy Riot.  Give me Mussolini over Fellini.  A Henry Ford for a Lincoln. Tom Paine's been kicked to the curb by Fox News.

We have a major party candidate arrogantly preaching hate, intolerance, and ignorance. King of the Demagogues; Lord of the Fleas. He commands an unsavory group of followers known as the alt-right, the base of the base if you will. Their hobbies include holocaust denial and hipster bigotry.

Some are more traditional in their intolerance. Disagree with us and we WILL hurt you is the implicit message of Trump's rhetoric. Complexities are reduced to Orwellian slogans. Gotta Love the TRUMP because he's a BUSINESSMAN WHO GETS THINGS DONE. The cult of the CEO reigns supreme.

The moral equivalency espoused by those who see no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is even more maddening. She'll never have the hip appeal of Bernie nor the Arkansas swagger of her husband. Hillary may carry the banner of the establishment, but she's not evil.  No stoking the fires of hate from her camp, nor is she insulting or demeaning to her opponents.  Clinton's intentions and goals are in the right place. She knows her Machiavelli (apparently Trump reads the collected speeches of Hitler). If there were a short list of people MORE than qualified for the presidency - Hillary would be on that list. She would make a fine chief executive.

I'm loathe to imagine what a Trump presidency would mean for America and the world. Building a wall on the Mexican border, making torture standard operating procedure, casual use of nuclear weapons are all illogical, dangerous, insane.  Or a trade war with China. See how that goes. The man implored foreign countries to hack into his opponent's email account. There's no limit to his bat shit madness. In another life he would be a crooked carny on the dice game racket. 

So the Trump campaign is a reactionary fever dream to restore a past that never existed. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. to die, to sleep - - to sleep - - perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come . . . .    

Like many Americans I feel like Kevin McCarthy screaming at the oblivious motorists at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Has everyone fallen asleep at the wheel?  Are the pod people taking over?  Alas, Joe DiMaggio's left and gone away. O'Leary's in the grave. Superman took off for the coast.  Ain't no savior going to arise from these streets, but. . . . .. . . .. . . .. 

--------------its easy to despair, these indeed are the times that try men's souls.  

No matter what garbage spews out of Trump's mouth, America's still got soul.  We are the still the locale of Jack Kerouac, Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, Curtis Mayfield, FDR, IKE, JFK, MLK, Willie Mays, Chuck Berry, Ella Fitzgerald, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie and many, many others who fought and continue to fight the good fight.

The world will little remember what was said in 2016, but it will remember what happened and what it led to. I think the stakes are much bigger than anyone can know, so listen to your heart, don't give into hate.  Let's not throw it all away, it ain't worth it.  

Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Review: The World According to Star Wars by Cass R. Sunstein

World renowned Legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein wrote a book on a most unlikely topic for someone in his field: the Star Wars phenomenon.  Sunstein relates how over a year ago he revisited the first Star Wars film A New Hope and got hooked on the saga and became fascinated with how it captured the imagination of the entire world.  A fun read from start to finish.

While many have attempted to explain the enduring success of Star Wars, more than any other writer, Sunstein uses common sense to explain.  In a way, its a nice antidote to the legions of haters against George Lucas.  For Sunstein, Lucas created a work of genius that will endure through the ages.

Each chapter, divided up into episodes, looking at specific aspects of Star Wars ranging from the story's roots in world mythology, parent-child relationships, politics and history, freedom of choice, even constitutional law.  

Why did Star Wars catch on?  Sunstein offers three possibilities.  It just too awesome to be ignored?  Historically, there are many examples of what is now considered great art that was rejected at the time. Or was it a cascading effect, meaning when a bunch of people love a movie, it gets contagious. Then again, many box office hits do not stand the test of time. What was the top grossing film of 1987?  Three Men and a Baby, don't see anyone rushing off to see it now. Or did Star Wars come out at a time when people were ready for it?

All three factors were in play.  Star Wars was an awesome movie, it caught on like a wildfire, and yes the zeitgeist of 1977 played a role as well.  As the book points out, Bob Dylan's classic songs of the 1960s would seem out of place in another decade. Too abrasive and cynical in the 1950s, but out of touch in the 1980s.  

If Star Wars had come out in the 1960s it would've looked goofy and militaristic, while in the 90s it would be too corny.  Timing is a factor.

Sunstein argues that at its heart, Star Wars is about parents and children.  He points out how George Lucas's father ran a stationary store in Modesto, California and expected his son to follow in his footsteps.  Lucas refused after an acrimonious argument, taking a more risky path into film school.  In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke defies his father by not going to the dark side.  Yet in Return of the Jedi, Luke tries to redeem his father and at the moment of truth Darth Vader cannot bear to see his son suffer and saves his life. Even though children will challenge and defy their parents, they also know they will never abandon them.  

Written for fans and non-fans alike, a valuable edition to Star Wars literature.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Book Review: Small Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns

Small Town Talk tells the history of Woodstock, New York, a place famous for the Woodstock Music Festival of August 1969, although it was held 60 miles away from the actual town.  Author Barney Hoskyns documents how the town, a gathering place for artist and bohemians throughout the 20th century, usually in shaky harmony with the locals, transformed rock and roll into an epic art form during the 1960s.  

When Bob Dylan set up shop in Woodstock as a remote haven from New York  City, many other rock icons of the era followed suit including Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Todd Rundgren, Levon Helm, and many others.

The best part of the book covers the town's heyday in the 1960s.  Albert Grossman looms large in the book, a key figure in the New York music scene who saw the commercial possibilities of folk music and brought it to the mainstream with acts like Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Later he managed Bob Dylan's career until their dramatic falling out, a conflict addressed on Dylan's John Wesley Harding album. Grossman remains complex figure who left many hard feelings over money and his derisive attitude towards artists. 

Dylan bought a farm in Woodstock and the spent the early years of his marriage there. In 1967 he recorded The Basement Tapes with the Band, music that never got an official release until 1975, but became a major influence on the future of music. According to Hoskyns Dylan rose at Six every day, took his kids to school, and recorded with the Band from Noon till six five days a week. In time Dylan felt less at peace in Woodstock when obsessed fans would congregate in his backyard, he even had a direct phone line to the police station installed in case of trouble.

Eventually Dylan moved back to the city, but many other musicians from both sides of the Atlantic came to Woodstock in search of inspiration. The Band recorded their early albums there, music partly inspired by the atmosphere of the town.  Drummer Levon Helm remained a fixture of the local scene until he passed away in 2012.

After the Woodstock music festival the town was overrun with people trying to make a quick buck by emulating their counter-cultural heroes. Todd Rundgren became the most notable musician to record his music at Woodstock in the 1970s, "a cult hero's, cult hero" to quote Hoskyns.

The genre today known as Americana, a problematic term because since it tends to simplify a wide swath of music, nevertheless originated with The Basement Tapes.  Many ingredients including folk, country, rock, bluegrass, blues coalesced into something unique in the late 1960s and remains a foundation of a certain type of American music. Hoskyns also left a useful playlist in the book's appendix.

Small Town Talk tells the story of a unique place that inspired many artists, unsparing minutia on their personal lives, and the corrosive effect of commerce on creativity.  There's many tales of romantic betrayals, hard feelings, disputes over money, and creative breakthroughs.  

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Concert Reviews: From Dayton to Toledo: A Dylan Doubleheader

Over the past week I was lucky enough to see Bob Dylan perform on back to back nights in Dayton and Toledo. Both evenings were graced with perfect weather - almost chilly at the Dayton concert.  Through his tour of America Dylan is sticking to the same setlist every night, dominated by his recent material from Tempest (2012), Shadows in the Night (2015), and Fallen Angels (2016). 

Each show opened with a pitch perfect version of "Things Have Changed", Dylan's Oscar Winning song for the 2000 film Wonder Boys. Yes: In 2016 "times are crazy and people are strange."  

On both nights Dylan alternated between taking center stage and playing piano.

Apparently many concert goers were expecting a greatest hits set list- those around me were vocal on that point. Nobody screamed JUDAS!, but when Bob went into "The Night We Called it a Day" many left for a beer.

"Pay in Blood" from Tempest rocked on both nights, with subversive lyrics like "Night after night, day after day/they strip your useless hopes away" disrupting the leisurely vibe of the crowd. 

The first set closed with a soft rock version of "Tangled Up in Blue."

The monumental "High Water (For Charley Patton)" from Love and Theft (2001) kicked off the second set. "Early Roman Kings" threw some blues into the mix and "Spirit in the Water" inspired a noble vocal performance. "Scarlet Town" is a perfect song to hear as the sun sets, a campfire story for the ages.

The material from Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels brings a new dynamic to Dylan's live shows.  It's a strange blend: the apocalyptic songs of Tempest with the romantic ballads of yesteryear. 

But it's good to see Dylan singing well and really into the songs.

For an encore Dylan and his Band played a triumphant version of "Blowin' in the Wind" and then closed on a sardonically rousing note with "Love Sick."

Mavis Staples and her band were an excellent opening act, playing soul music from the 60s along with some new material from her newest album Livin' on a High Note.

It's always a treat to see Dylan onstage and I appreciate his commitment to evolving his art and not relying on the standard material. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Interview with Alex Kudera Part 2

Here is the second and concluding part of my interview with Alex Kudera, author of Fight For Your Long Day and Auggie's Revenge.
EG: Both of your adjuncts, Cyrus and Michael, lament how their love of books and knowledge never helped them much in their professional and romantic lives.  Do you think being "well read" in the 21st century is considered a superfluous skill in the age of Wikipedia and Google?
AK: That’s a possibility, certainly, particularly for mainstream Americans, but there is still a somewhat sizeable demographic who will take time for a good book. Sometimes we are so busy that it is not always easy to find the other people who read. There are groups for book discussions and writers, both traditional ones that meet in person as well social-media circles and groups. I don’t think the search engines are bad in themselves. I think they can complement being well read.
Being somewhat well read, or at least widely read, may be all I have going for me, and at least I have that. I’ve worked in bookstores where you meet many people who are not always writers of any kind, but they read regularly. One good friend worked in a Borders for over 20 years and was more widely read than many English teachers I know, partly because he didn’t have scores of students and papers to grade. We can find readers, but it may take effort finding readers with similar tastes. Certainly, because I teach general education, I’m often in a room of young people who will read, but would not ordinarily read a novel.
EG: Statistics indicate students generally avoid liberal arts degrees like the plague.  What can be done to revive student interest in the liberal arts?
AK: Again, I think the intervention would have to occur earlier, well before high school, and most likely, we would have to connect citizenship in a democracy with literacy. Literacy levels were higher in some democratic periods in various countries than they are today in America.
Liberal arts majors are considered “fall back” majors, a major to choose if the more obviously practical majors aren’t working out or interesting to a particular student. It seems to me, however, that a minor in foreign language or professional writing could be a great way for a student to separate from the pack in any more obviously vocational major.
EG: Your title character Auggie, a pick up artist who preys on coeds, justifies his misogyny and racism because he had an abusive stepfather. I felt like Auggie's twisted logic tapped into a dark side of the American character, the idea that being a victim gives one license to victimize others, resulting in a chain reaction of cruelty.  Do you see the "I was screwed over, so I will screw people over" ethos casting a deeper shadow on American society these days?
AK: Yes, I do see the kind of society you describe, to some extent, and it is one that seems to run counter to all the babies and kittens and niceness we see on Facebook and other social media. But in the case of Auggie, I don’t think it is necessarily logic at all, not even twisted logic. In fact, I’ve read that upwards of 90% of American prisoners were in some ways themselves victims, and I am guessing that people who are victims of sexual abuse who do not become victimizers or otherwise traumatized from the events have particularly strong character or strong support networks. Money, access to counselling, positive environments, etc., plays a role here.
But Auggie, the character certainly does rationalize his choices, and Michael has some ability to recognize what may be wrong with “enabling” Auggie’s racism and other negative traits even as he grows attached to Auggie and the idea of helping him exact revenge.
EG: A recent New York Times Magazine story pointed out that working class characters have vanished from television.  Overall do you think class issues are being adequately addressed in contemporary American fiction?
AK: I think that I’m addressing class issues, and that there are other writers doing so as well, but it’s not clear to me that the reading public is highly aware of our books. Also, “contemporary American fiction” is a wide category, and most of us wind up “specializing” in a particular set of authors, so it’s hard to answer the question. I’m not sure, but I hope readers engage with the working-class characters of my books.
EG: Why are Americans so reluctant to rationally discuss issues of class?
AK: That’s a very good question and also one I cannot easily answer. What I’m seeing right now seems to be some sort of  class-based revolt within each major political party, and the news typically refers to the “base” not poorer, working, or disenfranchised Republicans or Democrats. That the bases seem to be revolting separately, and not as a class of their own, seems to indicate that the “divide and conquer” strategy, even if not an intended one exactly, will continue to make it difficult for less affluent groups in America.
EG: The epigraph from Fight For Your Long Day is a quote from Rousseau's Social Contract: "Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains.  One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they."  Cyrus and Michael are pursuing freedom in their own way.  How would you describe their conception of freedom?
AK: I’m not even certain either character has a conception of “freedom”—neither one seems genuinely free in the novels, that’s for sure although they each have their moments of freedom—Cyrus takes time to attend his birthday party and “get paid to read” in a campus bookstore and library during his security-guard shift. Despite being on the run after murder, Michael has a surprising amount of mobility around town. They were each seduced by the intellectual life, and then began to see what it led to, as far as teaching around town and cobbling together a living. It seems as if the life of the mind was not a path to freedom beyond material constraints, that’s for sure.
EG: One last question: Cyrus Duffleman is mentioned a few times in Auggie's Revenge. Any chance everyone's favorite adjunct will return?
AK: I have 115 pages of rough draft of a sequel to Fight for Your Long Day. It is based on a mythical football powerhouse in the South although I’m not certain to what extent readers would recognize it as any place I’ve taught these past nine years. Its working title, A New Life, is a tribute to Bernard Malamud’s academic novel of the same name, a book which was a finalist for the National Book Award the year the winner was The Moviegoer by Walker Percy and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates was also a finalist. That was 1962, and by coincidence I’m reading another 1962 NBA finalist right now, a somewhat forgotten novel, The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant, a book which like Fight for Your Long Day is strong in race and class in urban America.

A big thanks to Alex for agreeing to do the interview. You learn more about Alex and his work at and on twitter @Kudera

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Interview with Alex Kudera Part 1

This the first of a two part interview with author Alex Kudera. Kudera's debut novel, Fight For Your Long Day (2010 Atticus Books) looked at 21st Century Higher Education from the viewpoint of an adjunct instructor of writing.  Fight For Your Long Day won the 2011 Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region.  His second novel Auggie's Revenge (2016 Beating Windward Press) features another adjunct protagonist with an unorthodox circle of friends who lead him into criminal activity.  Mr. Kudera has also published the e-singles The Betrayal of Times of Prosperity (Gone Do Press), Frade Killed Ellen (Dutch Kills Press) , and Turquoise Truck (Mendicant Bookworks).

EG: Your first novel Fight for Your Long Day followed protagonist Cyrus Duffleman, a put upon adjunct instructor of composition, through a surreal day in the city of Philadelphia. Since the novel was published in 2010 have you noticed any change in public perception on the issues facing adjuncts who must contend with low salaries, zero benefits, and no job security?
AK: Yes, I think there is a greater public understanding of the issues although I’m not certain if the majority of the public has an exact opinion on it. I think that Trump and Sanders are both doing as well as they are because a large portion of the public is not satisfied with the status quo. They see an American workforce that includes 35% contingent positions (that stat includes one to three-year lecturer or “teaching professor” contracts as contingent, I’m pretty sure), a median household net worth of about 80 grand (I’ve seen this as low as 50 grand, and then it is higher if you only include white or Asian households), and a workforce participation rate that has stayed lower than it was before the Great Recession began—between 62 and 63 percent for most of Obama’s eight years (in fact, perhaps surprisingly, it was several points higher during the better years of the W. Bush Presidency).
The adjunct problem is very much related to these more general trends, and that is one reason I have Cyrus work as part-time night-shift security guard at the end of his day—so we can think about the relationship of contingent professors to other contract workers. I think such partnerships would be valuable although academic contingents are often coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds compared to people who guard the campuses, warehouses, or anywhere else.
On the other hand, a more pessimistic view is that regular workers (the rest of America) has a lot of trouble of seeing adjunct instructors at all—the campuses themselves often appear to be booming—professional (haha) or almost professional-level sports, constant construction (sometimes the only construction in a college town is on campus or to build places for students and employees to live) that it is hard to even imagine any worker on those campuses as “marginalized” or impoverished.
Also, to clarify, as is common for many adjuncts, Duffy teaches three different courses during his long day, and one is first-year writing (composition more or less but the specific section in the novel is on the argument essay), and the two others are business writing and 20th century Eastern European and Russian literature. That is, or was, very realistic when I was an adjunct—because the wages are so low, if an adjunct seems eager and able, a wide range of courses may be available.
EG: In Auggie's Revenge, your follow up to Fight For Your Long Day, we are introduced to adjunct teacher of philosophy Michael Vittinger, but the focus is more on his life outside the classroom. Was this a conscious creative decision on your part?
AK: For Auggie’s Revenge, I had both Michael and Auggie at first, and the Auggie character was the dominant one when I first imagined the book. But then I began writing from the perspective of Michael and soon after introduced Jonny November’s voice which was a fun one for me and so radically different from my day-to-day life as a teacher and parent—unless we consider that Jonny is Auggie’s teacher and parent. In fact, a few of the Auggie voice sections were among the last sections I drafted, and Melony Sorbet’s voice was also a relatively late add although I had those four characters as the main four characters from very early on.
I don’t think I saw it exactly as “inside v. outside,” but I’m glad you noticed this. I never intended to become an “adjunct novelist,” not exclusively anyway; I’ve always had different ideas for different books although adjunct novels seem to be what I can get published right now. Although there may be mentions of universities in my other works, I hope to publish an early surreal urban novel, Spark Park, a car-sales novel, and a memoir about my father’s life and his relationship to my immigrant grandfather who served his country during both world wars. I’m not against returning to the classroom for fiction though.
EG: Both novels are set in Philadelphia, a diverse city, and your novels never shy away from how ethnic and racial tensions can manifest themselves in the classroom.  Should college instructors be better prepared for teaching in diverse classrooms?
AK: It’s a funny question because, yes, absolutely, and ideally, all college instructors should get paid diversity training, and yet, we aren’t even at the point where every college student in America knows who their teacher will be two weeks before classes start. Also, I should say that although Philadelphia is diverse, I taught at one school where it would not be uncommon to have an almost all white or only white and Asian (often South Asian) class. In the South I had many different sections of up to 34 students that would often include only one black student or two black students and one “HAPA” student or something like that. So some of the college classrooms I’ve been have been incredibly homogeneous—vast majority white to entirely white.
I’d like to note that, yes, Philadelphia is diverse, but even in 2016, it doesn’t compare to New York City’s diversity. In Philly we have entrenched poverty (the highest rate of “deep poverty” of any major city), and we still have strong non-immigrant black and white populations. America’s larger cities, such as DC, San Francisco, and New York City, are far more expensive than Philadelphia, and they also have a far greater representation of the global economic elites. So they say it is possible to walk through Manhattan and see a representative of every nation on earth, but you won’t see American black people. Philadelphia is very different, more ethnically traditional and our metro-region Latino and Asian populations by percentage are not nearly as great as they are in California or New York City.
EG: Do you have any favorite fictional teachers or professors?

AK: Peter Mickelsson of John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts was the character that got me thinking that an academic protagonist didn’t have to be “loveable” or an obvious antagonist to be the central figure in an academic novel, or any novel. Murray Siskind a supporting character from White Noise is one I’ve liked, and the scenes of all the professors of American Environments testing each other (“Did you ever brush your teeth with your finger?, etc.) make me laugh. I like the professor as central figure in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein although again, it is not that these protagonist academics are exactly “likeable” in every way. The latter is based on Allan Bloom, author ofThe Closing of the American Mind, and the narrator of that book may very well be a fictional character of sorts. It’s quite engaging, even if one doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Bloom.

EG: In Auggie's Revenge we meet a character named Jonny November who goes on hilarious and sometimes poignant rants on America being one giant Ponzi scheme. His persona reminded me of George Carlin.   Did anyone in particular inspire the creation of Jonny?
AK: I wasn’t thinking of Carlin specifically although I recognize that some of Jonny’s scenes would work well as set pieces apart from the novel. I love novels where a central male character does not fit in with society (from Fred Exley to Dan and John Fante to many different protagonists of Saul Bellow novels), and I think Jonny, Auggie, and Michael are all misfits in different ways. From film, I was thinking a little bit about the character Alan Arkin played in Little Miss Sunshine, the older guy who will spit it out, knowing and not caring that he may offend some listeners and readers. Maybe David Mamet’s films or plays also relate to Jonny’s personality although Jonny is more slapstick, too, and it’s great to hear you found some of it hilarious. Thank you.

EG: While both novels focus on adjuncts, I think they also explore some of the deeper systemic issues facing higher education.  For example, a four year degree no longer guarantees entry into the middle class.  To quote Jonny November:
Don't let them fool you.  Jobs? Careers? Yes, for the top kids, the well trained ones with the brains upstairs, it all works out, particularly if they smile endlessly and work their parents' connections. But for the rest of us.  No fucking way are we gonna leave college with anything other than egregious debt . . . If you're like me, and the system is already stacked against you, against most of us, then college is not the right move.
What are some systemic changes higher education needs to make for it stay viable in the 21st century?
AK: First of all, let me say that the novel is fiction, and Jonny is a character in the novel, and I am trying to capture a personality, and also explore some possibilities that I could feel and see when I began teaching in the late nineties, and that are beginning to get wider visibility, often with statistical proof, twenty years later. Right now though, it is still more of a “let the buyer beware” sort of problem, and unfortunately I have a feeling that the more financial aid the student requires, on average, the less likely they are to have access to the best information when choosing a college or major or deciding to attend at all.
There is also luck involved as well as far as how good or bad the economy is when one graduates. Graduating into the early nineties recession gave me some insight into how bad things can be for college grads in general although it seems like things might be worse, on average, since the much more recent “Great Recession.” I suspect that many high schools and their guidance counsellors are beginning to acknowledge the exorbitant costs, and are doing even more to guide students into colleges and majors that are more likely to lead to financial security.
If we are talking about systemic changes without regard to how to pay for them, then the intervention would be most fair, that would support democracy and the greatest number would likely occur well before college.  Make sure kids from pre-K on are getting access to the resources they need to one day make a smart decision about college, and also make sure that decision is not negatively impacted by finances of parents. That would be the ideal, that even the poorest American would be in position to choose a degree for the sake of learning. As a country, and a world, we are amazingly far away from that kind of thing.

What we are doing right now is applying “patches” to the problem, so yes we have some decent loan forgiveness programs that have been improved several times since 2007, but there is not a tremendous amount of publicity about these programs. Because adjuncts are part of the larger trend of contract work (the aforementioned 35%), single-payer health coverage would likely be the best thing for this 35% (and others), but we have patches through ACA, and it seems like they are effective for many, but worse for some in some ways.

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(Part Two of my interview with Alex will post next week)