"Academic satire is familiar territory in literature. What keeps The Catastrophist engaging is its sheer humor in this first-person journey….Beneath the satire and dark comedy are lessons to contemplate: how does one cope with success and keep the fire in [a] marriage? These are even harder questions to answer when the problems do not appear in plain view."
Meet Daniel Wellington: art historian, academic star, devoted husband, and total basket case. Although Daniel has known nothing but success, he’s convinced the future promises nothing but disaster. When his wife, known simply as R., presents him with a tiny, size-XXS Yale sweatshirt, Daniel is seized by the impulse to bolt; the specter of imminent fatherhood sends him into a full-blown existential crisis. Soon this well-intentioned young professor finds himself plotting bigamy, lying about his past, imagining his pregnant wife in the arms of an androgynous grad student, and explaining to the dean his obscene e-mail to the lead in a student production of Miss Julie. From an idyllic New England campus to the rarefied art worlds of Berlin and London, The Catastrophist charts the rise and fall and partial rebound of an ambivalent but endearing Everyman and heralds the appearance of a major new comedic voice in American fiction.
The Amtrak from Montreal to New York thunders by at three thirty every morning, the only train that still runs on these once-busy tracks. The couple across the hall has grown accustomed to the noise, though their child has not. When the train rumbles off, the girl’s muffled sobs and the mother’s calming voice filter through my thin walls. In my case, it’s not the train that wakes me, but the anticipation. Come 3:27, I’m up, charged. Unfortunately, my biological clock is more accurate than Amtrak’s timetable: often I must wait fifteen or twenty minutes, sometimes as long as an hour, for the first distant whistle. Then I kick off my sheet and hurry to the kitchen window. The rumble builds before the train bursts from the pinewoods into a clearing, roaring past in purplish silhouette. A great old diesel, its headlight carves a cone of light, stirring memories of an imaginary childhood. It turns a bend and disappears into a dark grove. I go back to bed.
In the morning I get up whenever. For breakfast I munch dry Froot Loops while padding about the small living room in my underwear. The shabby apartment is Rosalind Roth’s old place. After she moved out, it sat vacant. The college disposed of the overt mess, leaving behind only traces of the deeper chaos: a crumpled box of Lucky Strikes in the bedroom closet, a layer of grit in the tub, and a lingering, ineradicable odor, like cat urine mixed with a hint of vanilla. The housing office offered to replace the kitchen’s Spam-colored vinyl floor and the gold-flecked Formica countertops, but I declined. As my mother would say, they’re authentic period pieces. And they hide the dirt.
After breakfast I dress—generally speaking. Since moving in, I’ve been steering clear of my office; in fact, I’ve hardly been out at all. News travels fast around the college, at least news of collapse. The campus ripples with stories about the young star who harassed his student, fabricated his past, and cheated on and then bloodied his pregnant wife. Even the Times ran a tiny news item:
ART HISTORIAN RESIGNS BERLIN COMMISSION
(Berlin) The Holocaust Memorial Commission of Brandenburg announced yesterday the resignation of Daniel Ben Wellington from the six-person Memorial Planning and Selection Committee. Wellington, an expert on war memorials at Franklin College in Massachusetts, was the sole American appointed to the committee charged with choosing the design for Berlin’s planned Holocaust memorial, to be the largest in Europe. The Commission cited “personal reasons” for the sudden resignation. An international competition sponsored by the Commission has attracted over 700 designs from leading artists and architects from around the world. The winning design for the five-acre memorial is to be announced this fall.
I clip the piece from the paper with a pair of nail scissors and file it away in a folder neatly marked, Me: Decline and Fall of. The college hasn’t initiated disciplinary action yet, but it will. It’s just a matter of time. For now I can be grateful that hardly anyone is in town. The tennis camp and summer school have disbanded, the lawns have yellowed, and the faculty has retreated to the Cape or the Maine coast for the final respite before the onslaught of SUVs that will deposit the students and their sound systems on the North Quad. Even so, everyone knows and has an opinion. E-mail traffic brings equal measures of censure and pity, often both. I’m a pariah and an outpatient. The gossip mill couldn’t ask for more.
And yet they all have the facts wrong. Let’s start with the first of my so-called personal problems: my alleged infidelity. My wife did not throw me out for lying about an affair. The affair was the lie—it never happened. It was all . . . how should I put it—a joke.
So those who peg me as the Restless Husband self-destructively lashing out against the confines of domesticity couldn’t be more off the mark. Monogamy suited me fine. In all my life I’ve never had a one-night stand—at least, not by choice. Years ago, in my first semester of graduate school, I met a woman at a party who asked me to walk her back to her apartment. The woman was from the South, Kentucky I think, and was working toward a degree in Italian literature. She spoke with a nasal twang, often swallowing her words, and her features were plain: small blue eyes, puffy cheeks, and blond hair cut in a lank pageboy. By the door to her apartment, I grazed her cheek with a dry peck, but she answered with a firm kiss, then whispered in my ear, “I want to blow you to Kingdom Cum.” Astonished, I let myself be led to her room decorated with posters of Siena and horses in waterfalls. There she wasted no time seducing me. I can still picture the girl’s eyes: closed, blissfully absorbed in private pleasure as I lay beneath her, watching. The next morning, she seduced me a second time. Again I felt as if I had moved to a place far off, detached not just from the act but from myself as well. Only later did I realize a simple truth: while most men might have been thrilled, it seemed I needed the love, too.
Not my wife. R. was drawn to adventure, conquest. On our honeymoon in Poland, it was R. who insisted that we travel first to Bialowieza, the last patch of primeval forest on the continent. There we saw black storks, peregrine falcons, and a single European bison grazing by a stand of towering alders as dark and mysterious as a Cranach landscape. Later, with Warsaw as our hub, we took day trips to the sites of the former death camps—Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Majdanek—so I could research and photograph the memorials for my planned book, Art and Atrocity. Most spouses would have complained, but not R. She accepted the quiet power of the memorials, in particular, the seventeen thousand slabs and shards of granite that jutted defiantly from Treblinka’s lush green fields; and she liked the idea of a honeymoon that baffled and possibly appalled her extended family. Come evening, we’d bus back to Warsaw. After a dinner of borscht and sauerkraut pierogi, we’d retire to our drab room in the formerly state-run hotel and its narrow Stalinist bed. Only we did little in the way of sleeping. Once, R. pitched against me so forcefully that I suffered a slight case of whiplash. Later she sucked my tongue into her mouth with such violence that I tasted blood: her kiss had torn a thread of skin that anchors the tongue to the sublingual fold. I had to gargle with hydrogen peroxide.
After a couple years of marriage, though, R.’s desire had exhausted itself. Twice a month, every other Saturday night, she would issue the blunt command: “Stick it in.” If we missed a Saturday night as the result of, say, a cold, there were no make-ups. Although nothing chills the spirit of Eros more than the weight of routine, this is the way R. came to want things. On all other nights, she would permit me to lie close and place my hand on the thrilling rise of her naked hip. If my hand strayed, the rebuke was gentle but firm: “Wrong.”
How we arrived at this arrangement is hard to say. If it’s natural for married couples to be less passionate than newlyweds, this still doesn’t explain the dismaying erosion of R.’s interest in physical intimacy. Experts observe that women, particularly when settled into domestic rhythms, prefer the quiet of cuddling to the slap and sweat of “genital activity.” But not R. Lavender-scented candles, Tibetan incense, and comfrey massage oil all left her equally indifferent. The default explanation was that R. had fallen out of love, a charge I sometimes leveled in the hope of prodding her to some tender rebuttal. R. would pat my arm and say, “Poor baby, of course, I love you. But I’m more a cat person. Too much touching makes me claustrophobic. You’re more doglike. Now go to sleep, little hound.” Then she’d place my hand on the crest of her hip, and close her eyes.
Not that I ever really doubted her. In other matters our marriage was strong. If anything, her apathy was a sign not of love’s defeat but of its triumph. Unfortunately, it was not until R. began to lose interest in me that I was free to discover my erotic appetite; her lassitude aroused me as her desire never had.
The above is excerpted from "The Catastrophist" by Lawrence Douglas. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.