I was on probation for a year at college — the Vietnam War was raging, and Dow Chemical, the makers of napalm, had come to recruit. And along with a hundred others, I was thrown out of my graduation — the Shah of Iran was getting an honorary degree. But I’m no fan of today’s too-sensitive-to-live college kids, who eat in farm-to-table dining halls and live in special dorms for students of miniscule peculiarities and then freak out when someone utters a “trigger word” or expresses an opinion they find hateful.
The last book I want to read is a 356-page novel about a student protest at a college like Amherst or Williams.
I devoured “The Devil and Webster.”
And not because Jean Hanff Korelitz is a friend. As is her husband. And her kids. And not because I’ve been a featured guest at her pop-up book group, BooktheWriter, or will soon be hosting an event for her. As I’ve noted before, I don’t praise the work of my friends because they’re my friends. I’m a snob. I become friends with people whose work I admire.
I see a pattern in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s most recent novels. “Admission,” which became a Tina Fey movie,” is about a female Princeton admissions officer with a career/life conflict. You Should Have Known is about a female therapist with a career/life conflict. And “The Devil and Webster” is about a female college president with a career/life conflict. Of the three books, the latest is the best — the set-up is the most credible, the characters are the most familiar. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
The college president — Webster’s first female president — is Naomi Roth. Of course she’s Jewish, a feminist, a former professor. No style icon; her closet is mostly Eileen Fisher. How divorced is she? Very? And where is her daughter at college? Webster, natch.
There’s trouble at Webster. It doesn’t seem like much. A popular professor — African-American, a specialist in folklore — didn’t get tenure, so some kids protest by camping out around the college’s traditional gathering place. Confidentiality rules prevent Naomi from saying anything about the reasons the professor didn’t get tenure, so there’s no real opportunity for her to engage the students in what used to be called “dialogue.” And that gives the leader of the protestors — Omar Khayal, a Palestinian by way of Oklahoma — an opening that he can, with his eloquence, brilliantly exploit.
Korelitz understands exactly how such small local issues gain national attention.
“My door’s been open for months. … What kind of protest declines dialogue with its opponent?”
“A modern one,” Francine said dryly. “These kids are not like we were. … Interaction across the battle lines isn’t what they’re after. … They want to represent something to their peers more than they want to gain respect from their opponents.”
“Or accomplish anything,” Naomi said, rolling her eyes.
“Oh, they’re accomplishing plenty. They’re compiling influence. … ”
“Gaining ‘likes.’ Getting ‘retweeted.’ ”
“That’s part of it. No point denying it.”
A campus dispute is usually grist for satire. Not here. Mothers and daughters, administrators and trustees, students and student leaders — Korelitz has a clear take on them all. It’s possible to care for Naomi and for the righteous students in this tale. But if you’re clever, long before the surprising ending, you’ll find a reason to care a lot more for Naomi.
QUICK BONUS INSIGHT
What fascinates Jean Korelitz? In a video snippet from a recent reading in New York, Jennifer Mirsky captures the decisive insight.
EXCERPT: PROLOGUE: A SMALL COLLEGE IN THE WOODS
At the exact epicenter of the Webster College campus, which was also the exact epicenter of the open rectangular space known today as The Quad, but formerly (and still formally) as The Billings Lawn, a large and unlovely stump protruded from highly tended grass. The Stump was a relic and lonely vestige of the great elms that had once loomed over Webster’s buildings and walkways, and which filled the forests of New England in general before Dutch Elm disease arrived, a half-century ago, to decimate them. But this particular tree — this particular stump — could not be called a victim of the arboreal catastrophe, since it had been chopped down many years before the first fungus-bearing Scolytus elm-bark beetle had infected the first North American elm. It was also, as these things went, a beloved symbol of the college, at least to its graduates. Everyone else had to have it explained to them, but wasn’t that what it meant to be an insider?
The stump had a proper name, naturally — it was “The Webster Elm” — but like almost everything else on this simultaneously tradition-sensitive and tradition-antagonistic campus, it also had its share of ancillary nicknames: Josiah’s Throne after the college’s founder and, less grandly, The Stump, which was the name the students tended to use. As in: “We’ll meet at The Stump at ten, ok? We can walk over from there.” Or: “Join us every Sunday at 8 for Sunrise Yoga at The Stump!” Or: “Take Back the Night will leave from The Stump at midnight.” There had even, a couple of times previously, been assemblies of protesters at The Stump, but this was before Naomi Roth’s time, before she’d arrived at Webster to bolster (or, let’s be honest, create) a presence for feminist and gender studies at the college, and in due course become its Dean of Women’s Affairs and ultimately its first female president. But those other student actions were very different from what Naomi would have to contend with. There had been clear statements of purpose, plainly identified leaders, loud complaints and aggressive demands. Lines of communication had been established with Webster’s president, whoever he’d been at the time, and that president had at least pretended to consider what the students had to say. The outcomes, too, were pretty much all the same: after getting their way or at least picketing a trustees’ retreat or a commencement to make their point, the protesters had just…gone away. Graduated? Transferred? Had the riot act read to them by mom and dad, or whoever was paying Webster’s tuition? Been abruptly reminded of alternate pursuits like academic interests or career goals? It didn’t really matter. At some point the last of these protestors would extract his or her last belonging from the mud, and Buildings and Grounds would come along to clear away anything left behind. Then the area around The Stump would be reseeded and fenced off to give it a chance to recover. And that would always be the end of that.
When it happened in Naomi’s time, that strange and violent year at Webster, there weren’t many people still on campus who’d have remembered the earlier protests. Colleges are like that, constantly taking in and releasing the largest faction of their communities, and taking in and releasing faculty and staff members, also constantly, if not at the same pace. Besides, Webster was a busy place, full of extremely bright and enthusiastic students who had gotten into Webster by being exactly that, and also highly focused professors whose only complaint about teaching such extremely bright and enthusiastic students was the time it took away from their own writing, their own research. Possibly a handful of faculty members, people closer to the ends of their careers than the beginnings, would have remembered some earlier actions – safe spaces for women, dodgy institutional investments, more choices for vegetarians (back then, “vegetarian” was radical enough; no one even dreamed of “vegan”), or the Indian Symbol, which was a slap in the face to those Native American students the college had begun to recruit in the 70s. But even if individual recall extended that far back, it wouldn’t have helped Naomi, or averted what would later seem like an inevitable, unforgiving and, yes, of course, tragic trajectory. Once the thing began, in other words, there was no chance of stopping it, no matter what she tried or what she thought or even how sincerely she offered them capitulation.
For one thing, when it happened in Naomi’s time there was no initial leader and no public declaration as to what it was all about. There was no overture of any kind made to Naomi or anyone else in authority at the college, and it seemed for much of that fall that the true purpose of the protest at The Stump was simply to share ideas about what was wrong with Webster and wrong with the world, and what might make it right, or at least better. It was as if each of the students at the Stump encampment had come with some personal grievance, and in the exchanges of these personal grievances there emerged a general, generational, miasma of discontent: about Webster, the country, the way things were. And because it appeared to be these students’ principle that no one of them should speak for all of them, that miasma simply hung over the Billings Lawn and the campus itself, and represented, as Betty Friedan might have said, a problem that had no name. But even so, it was Naomi Roth’s problem: first ignored by her and then irritating to her and then alarming to her and then, all at once, intractably complex and a threat to everything she had done at Webster, and everything she was trying to do.
It was Naomi herself who noticed the deference paid to one young man, a dark and slight kid in a brown hoodie and heavy rubber boots, caked in November mud. And it was she who asked who he was and began to wonder, possibly aloud, whether he would like to represent the group and talk with her in a calmer way about what was at issue here, and how the administration — how she, Naomi — could begin to make it right.
And so: she found him. She appointed him — you could make a case for that. And everything that happened later, to the college, to Naomi herself, but mostly, of course, to him, was her fault. You could make a case for that too, and even if you couldn’t, Naomi Roth could. She always would.
His name, it would emerge, was Omar, and he was a sophomore from Oklahoma, though he was not, of course, really from Oklahoma. He was from Oklahoma the way someone with an Irish name was from Massachusetts, or someone with a Swedish name was from Minnesota, only not even that, because the Oklahoma address on his Webster application just happened to be that of the foster family he was living with at the time, after earlier stints with other foster families in Milwaukee and Houston. Why Oklahoma? It was one of those questions you sensed there was no point in asking. Why Milwaukee? Why Houston? Why America in the first place?
Another question not worth asking, but for the opposite reason.
America because, as Omar would later tell it — to his comrades in the finally named movement, Webster Dissent, to the earnest student journalists from the Webster Daily and the alternative Webster Contra, the Webster Tonight host on the college radio station, the Yale Daily News reporter and the Hartford Courant reporter and the AP reporter and the extremely famous reporter from NBC News and the also extremely famous host of Today — America had always been his dream, for many years, in the refugee camp, far away in his cherished, blighted land.
His dream among open sewers and plastic bags flapping in the dry air and the sacks of grain from World Concern and the brave little soccer skirmishes on the broken ground under the lights of the perimeter fence…far, far into the distance. The sorrow and boredom and filth, the anguish of watching his loved ones taken, one after the next until he was alone, the ache of wasted time as other boys in other countries got to study, dream, plan, move forward into their futures while he could only sit still: immobilized by frustration, tormented by longing.
Such a terrible story. Such a terrible wonderful story because…look how Omar had journeyed from there to here, from that terrifying sad place to this lovely safe campus: buildings of grey stone, pretty fluttering trees, straight walkways to guide your footfalls as you progressed from destination to destination, and that single, misshapen stump left over from the past, to which you might tie yourself as to the mast of a listing ship. You could not save everyone in the world, of course, but wasn’t it nice to think that a smart boy from such an awful life, burdened by so much suffering, so many losses, might still, incredibly, find himself at a place like Webster College?
Webster College. Once a school of the richest, the WASPiest, the most loutish and most conservative of American men, and then later, after its extraordinary transition in the 1970s, the institution of choice for creative and left-leaning intellectuals of all genders and ethnic varieties. “A small school in the woods, from which, by the Grace of God, we might know His will” had been its motto in the early days, when Josiah Webster hacked his way north from King’s College (later Columbia) to establish his Webster’s Indian Academy beneath the towering elms. Two centuries later, with nary a Native American student in nearly that long, those words — like so much else about Webster — had been revised: “A small school in the woods, from which, by scholarship and thoughtful community, we might know the Universe”.
That was how things stood when Naomi Roth became the college’s 17th president, and Omar Khayal, a sophomore from Oklahoma, Milwaukee, Houston, and a refugee camp under Palestinian stars, its tragic, mystifying icon.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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