Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine



The Awful Truth
By "Guido Veloce"

To: Max Geld, Literary Agent
From: Anonymous

I've got a dynamite book idea to run past you. It's one of those insider, tell-all jobs, based on my three-week visiting professorship at the Cheapshott School of Journalism. It screams best seller and major movie deal.

Now that the election thing is over, it's time to get away from national politics. Been there. Written that. People are sick of reading about people who are corrupted by power. How about something really different? A true-story type novel about people who are corrupted by powerlessness. No, I know what you're thinking. Not poor people. Too depressing, too 1930s, too Henry Fonda. I mean people who eat brie and drive Volvos. I mean academic politics.

The central character is Bob and he's this charismatic guy (think William Hurt) who's got some cute foibles. He actually likes the food in the student cafeteria, drinks the kind of Chardonnay that comes in a box, and once lit a cigar in his smoke-free campus office (but didn't inhale).

Bob also has some real skeletons in his closet. Early in his career he and his wife got involved in some shady collaborations that went bad. He almost had to declare intellectual bankruptcy. One of his partners, however, took the fall and was sentenced to a deanship at Gopher Prairie State U.

To make it worse, Bob is an intellectual philanderer who had a well-documented fling with deconstruction, for which he publicly apologized to his classes in plain English. But he still keeps having late night assignations with female graduate students at the library, where they play footnotes, if you know what I mean. In another episode that occurred early in his career when he was teaching at a state university, a female job applicant accused him of exposing his latent neo-Platonism to her during a hotel room interview, in full view of two graduate students, both of whom mysteriously disappeared into business schools. Hints of a conspiracy.

The character issues don't stop there. Bob dodged a committee assignment and wrote a letter to his dean saying that he is philosophically opposed to stupid meetings. What sets the story going, however, is another kind of character problem: Bob's naked ambition to regain the chairmanship of his department so he can have a bigger office.

In his quest, he has two partners in crime. One is his wife (my working name for her is "Tiffany," but that's too fluffy, and my other choice, "Helga," is too ethnic). She is in the same field as Bob, but teaches at a local community college. She's smart and tough. But she's also ambitious and bitter and whines about glass ceilings because the good jobs are always going to men who are dumber than she is, like Bob. She's a real Lady McGruff, or whatever the character was. Think a young Jessica Lange. Bob's other ally is a munchkin-like professor of religious studies (Michael J. Fox would be a natural) who looks innocent and keeps putting out misleading information about Bob and his opponent. I'll play him for laughs, although in the end he's the one who really wins because he gets an article on ethics out of it.

Bob's chief competition for the chairmanship is a cranky old guy (think Walter Matthau) who keeps interrupting himself. We'll call him Sam. He's a real straight arrow whose only friends are in the Math Department, where they think he is normal.

The struggle for the chairmanship is brutal, and there is no trick too low or promise too extravagant for Bob and Sam. Bob promises to do a better job than he did the last time he was chair. Sam promises not to speak at department meetings. Bob attacks Sam for being an old-fashioned scholar who keeps looking backward to the past. Sam agrees and points out that he's a historian. Sam attacks Bob's lack of committee service and notes that, in contrast, he's been on so many of them that he lost partial use of the right side of his brain. Bob accuses Sam of wanting to cut graduate financial aid and raise faculty salaries. Bob promises to do the same thing, but nicely. Sam pledges a 15 percent reduction in teaching and Bob proposes a teaching break for middle-aged faculty. Bob feels everyone's pain except Sam's and wants to bring the faculty together in harmony and collegiality. Sam doesn't give a hoot. Sam accuses Bob of waffling on the issues and Bob more or less agrees. To the disgust of their colleagues, each candidate dodges the crucial hot button issue: faculty parking. Bob speaks vaguely about choice of spaces and Sam remembers when there weren't any darn cars, anyway.

Bob wins, but everything turns to ashes. He can't come through on his promises, or even remember them. His faculty hate him. His wife doesn't divorce him. He has to serve on committees. And there is another colleague, young like Bob and straight arrow like Sam, who's already campaigning for the chairmanship. Even the bigger office is a disappointment. It's too hot in the winter and too cold in the summer. Our last view of Bob is of him in the new office on Christmas Eve, with snow falling outside, writing overdue letters of recommendation and fiddling with the air conditioner.

The title writes itself: Drab Colors.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins professor.