This book goes back and forth between the past and present, often in the same chapter. It was a bit disorienting at first as sometimes I start reading about his time as a teacher at Tarkington and then pivot to another time, then return. I’m used to it now, mostly, but I think it’ll help make things clearer to make a timeline of sorts, based on the information we’ve been given so far.
– Eugene was born in 1940
– His time in Vietnam ended in 1975
– He got the job at Tarkington College in 1975
– He was fired from Tarkington in 1991
– Sometime after this, he went to work at the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institute at Athena
– Tarkington College became Tarkington State Reformatory in 1999
– Eugene begins working for the Reformatory as a warden
– The prison break occurs sometime in 1999
– Eugene is writing this book in 2001
Okay, so that’s most of the big stuff.
So now we’re really getting into the meaty part of the book. We learn more about Eugene’s family, and thus more about him, and get to the point where he’s fired from Tarkington.
Eugene is revealed to be a philander, seeking out affairs to comfort himself, sometimes with married women, including the wife of the college president (the one who would later shoot convicts from the belfry. After killing and wounding many of them, he is eventually crucified by the convicts. His wife Zuzu was killed). Notably, he prefers older women. This, combined with his love of housekeeping, which he acquired in his youth because of his mother’s difficulties getting around, makes it likely that he has some unresolved mother issues. Despite his vice, Eugene still manages to comes across as likable most of the time.
We see him struggle with his mentally ill wife and mother-in-law, deal with the scorn of his two grown children, one of whom is already an alcoholic. The daughter is studying at Cambridge, the son is in a prestigious academy. They resent him, not only for bringing them into the world despite the strain of mental illness on their mother’s side, but also because Eugene never had his mother-in-law sent to a mental hospital, leaving her in the house to embarrass the kids. However, Eugene points out that if he had sent his in-law to an institution, he wouldn’t have been able to afford the tuition at their expensive schools. The college gave him a house, but his salary is modest. He gets a Mercedes at one point. It is given to him by the rich parent of a student he stopped from committing suicide. The student jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge two years later.
During this stretch, we also learn more about the United States of Hocus Pocus. The state prison at Athena is sold off to Japanese interests, and indeed much of the country’s resources and businesses are snatched up by foreign interests. Hocus Pocus’ America is an America in disarray. “…cut loose in a thoroughly looted, bankrupt nation whose assets had been sold off to foreigners, a nation swamped by unchecked plagues and superstition and illiteracy and hypnotic TV, with virtually no health services for the poor.” And once again, this time more bluntly, we see the contrast between the almost entirely white and wealthy students of Tarkington College and the entirely black population of the state prison (the Supreme Court had decided to jail convicts alongside other members of their race only).
Now let’s get to how Eugene loses his job at Tarkington. So there’s this student – Kimberley Wilder, who enrolls in Tarkington and seems to be everywhere Eugene is all year. He assumes she’s just a real bad gossip, but in fact she has been taping him. Kimberley is the daughter of John Wilder, a wealthy and influential conservative columnist and talk-show host. At the end of the school year, Eugene is called into a meeting of the Board of Trustees. There he learns that he has been taped and all the things he has been recorded saying. Amusingly, in a depressing sort of way, most of the stuff on tape involved Eugene quoting someone else or saying something while drunk.
He is reprimanded for crude comments, for being “negative” (telling the truth about matters such as the Vietnam War and America as a less than perfect place, though again, those were usually remarks that were attributable to someone else). Eugene soon realizes that this is not so much a meeting, or even a hearing, but an execution.
“I wasn’t an uncle, I was a member of the Servant Class.
They were letting me go.
Soldiers are discharged. People in the workplace are fired.
Servants are let go.
“Am I being fired?” I asked the Chairman of the Board incredulously.
“I’m sorry, Gene,” he said, “but we’re going to have to let you go.”
His status as an inferior is reinforced and made clearer:
I put the same question to the Chairman, who had been pauperized by Microsecond Arbitrage but didn’t know it yet. “Bob–” I began.
I began again, having gotten the message in spades that I was a servant and not a relative: “Mr. Moellenkamp, sir….”
What ended up doing him in, though, was his history as a womanizer. Justin Wilder – a perfect example of a wealthy conservative blowhard – has evidence of his affairs, including the one with Zuzu, the wife of the college president, Tex Johnson. Johnson was there at the board meeting, but got up and left when details of his wife’s unfaithfulness were about to be discussed. Awkward.
So Eugene is fired, a combination of his carnal sins and the fickleness of the ruling class. Now what? Let’s read on!
When it comes right down to it, that’s why they fired me, although I don’t believe they themselves realized that that was why they fired me: I had ugly, personal knowledge of the disgrace that was the Vietnam War.
None of the trustees had been in that war, and neither had Kimberley’s father, and not one had allowed a son or daughter to be sent over there. Across the lake in the prison, of course, and down in the town, there were plenty of somebody’s sons who had been sent over there.