By Lawrence Douglas
* * *
Other Press, 276 pages, $24.95.When we first meet Daniel Wellington, the protagonist of Lawrence Douglas’s debut novel, he is lying awake, waiting for the 3:30 a.m. passage of Amtrak’s Montreal to Washington express. He gets out of bed, witnesses the diesel engine as it emerges from a New England forest, professes his childlike delight and goes back to bed. So far, so likable: A promised paragon of paranoia.
The next paragraph paints a grimmer portrait. Daniel is unkempt and depressed; his career and marriage appear to be over; he keeps recent news clippings in a file titled “Me: Decline and Fall of.” This is a man who will compare himself to a type of fish that is known to attack itself out of greed and confusion. “The Catastrophist” has arrived.
The meat of Douglas’s offering is in the back story, which recounts Daniel’s journey to the nadir of campus novel cliché, the sad-sack, washed-up scholar whose promising future has crashed on the rocks of anxiety. While still in his 30s, Daniel made a name for himself in the rarefied field of Holocaust memorial studies. He offers theories on the best structure for Berlin and on the groundbreaking study “Art and Atrocity,” and presents an argument for including a Shoah memorial in London’s Imperial War Museum. Neither a brooding scold nor a continental sage, Daniel is the only son of secular Jews, the grandson of an émigré who banished the Old World with an absurdly baronial adopted name. He’s apparently also attractive, judging by the handful of women who proposition him through the course of the novel. Nonetheless, Wellington is a self-professed “futurephobe.” When he learns he is to become a father, his life goes off the rails. Needless to say, it is Wellington’s own rash hand at the controls.
Identity crises, midlife crises and existential crises are the Holy Trinity of the fiction of academia, and in this Douglas has not broken new ground. He stays within the parameters of the genre and is true to the tropes of the most successful campus novelists, from Kingsley Amis and Saul Bellow to Don DeLillo and Michael Chabon. He throws his hero a tenure party at which colleagues say the darndest things, sends him to an international symposium that is a backdrop for infidelity and introduces him to a junior English department professor who wears Elizabethan tunics. He contorts his hero with introspection and gives him an audience of eccentrics. He also acknowledges his predecessors overtly: When Wellington wants to share something personal with a budding love interest, he sends her a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pnin.”
“The Catastrophist” tempers its rollicking downward spiral with expert pacing and regular flashes of atmospheric brilliance. Douglas, a professor at Amherst College who has published a study of war crimes trials as well as a collection of literary lampoons, is at home with irreverence. As first-person narrator, Wellington gets the best lines — though they are confined to his inner voice: “The emergency room suggested a small failing business,” he notes, while a vacated apartment evokes “the interior decorating flair of a heroin addict.” During an awkward dinner, he reports, “The silverware clattered loudly like in French movies about bourgeois unraveling.”
When Wellington fibs about his personal history — a poetically just lapse for one so preoccupied with imminent doom — it becomes almost impossible not to see in his fate the ghost of another literary campus martyr, Coleman Silk of Philip Roth’s 2000 novel, “The Human Stain.” Coleman transgressed faculty rules by hiding his ancestry; Daniel sins by exploiting his. Indeed, these two are the flip sides of the bad penny plaguing American universities: Roth menaced his hero with an Ivy Tower that demanded he conceal his roots; Douglas has given us an anti-hero who digs too deep for an imaginary bad seed. In the end, Daniel emerges as a new father with a fresh conception of survival, but the dark shadow of dysfunction hovers over this winsome book’s sunniest epiphanies.
Elizabeth Kiem is a writer living in Brooklyn.