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Pope Sixtus the Fourth by Robert CastleIt is the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Pope Sixtus IV. His namesake high school, will be honored that year, 1984, with a visit from Pope John Paul II, who will use the occasion to make a major announcement. The school administration, led by Father John Daherne, will dedicate the school year by preparing for this visit in May. The administration must organize the school’s component parts: teachers, students, staff, and parents, to achieve the proper tenor when they receive the Pope. In other words, it must do absolutely the impossible because none of these components care about anything save their own agendas. Even more troublesome is Monsignor Daniel Swayze, principal of Alexander VI High School, who will do all he can to sabotage Sixtus High’s plans and get the Vatican to switch venues for the Pope’s visit to Alexander VI High. While the administration looks at the school year as a whole, the teachers are stuck on a single day, October 10, 1983, a Monday, the Columbus Day holiday. Their narrative essentially is concerned with getting through this day, a paradigm of their approach to their jobs. The teacher narrative maintains a pivot by following, Bill Dempsey, a History teacher, who seems to have a conscience, who seems to win Teacher of the Year honors and appear on the Tonight Show, who appears to do his lesson plans, who appears faithful to his wife, and who seems to be a closet Nietzschean. The central student group is “The Class Body.” The class, C-2, by common consent the school’s most unruly in 1983-84. Narrated by an anonymous student, this section details their great struggle to stall and obliterate the school year. While this group is not much different in spirit from the other students, the “Class Body” has a greater consciousness of itself as effecting some sort of change. The destruction of this group of sophomores becomes an imperative for many teachers who are upset at the death of Kaz Schwann, C-2’s homeroom teacher, a death they blame (accurately) on the class. Other students in the school are featured via notes written in class, poetry in the literary magazine, the school newspaper, the yearbook, and student essays. The Parents want their kids to have learning disabilities so as not to be embarrassed by the children’s apparent stupidity. Parents care for little else except to have their summer vacation plans go uninterrupted. The novel concludes with the Pope John Paul II’s visit.

Fiction. A SARDINE ON VACATION collects 53 short essays, stories, dialogues, character sketches, and miscellaneous musings. Inspired by Flann O’sBrien’s Myles columns in the Dublin Times, the Sardine scornfully confronts and avoids the newspaper-reading Public who cannot quite figure out what the Sardine represents. Ultimately, the Sardine’s success leads one man to take it up on himself to hunt down and unmask the Sardine. “A SARDINE ON VACATION does for the newspaper-column novel what Gutenberg did for the hand-copied Bible, that is, it completely redeploys, redirects, and redistributes the energies of a genre pegged so closely to the myth of old-time objectivity. The William S. Burroughs-inspired three-column format retrains the novel reader’s eye–until the line between faux-journalism and recursive postmodern narrative excurses makes the Jason Blair and Stephen Glass scandals seem like the work of rank amateurs. Open this tin, and take a trip with the Sardine!”–Davis Schneiderman.

A Sardine on Vacation: a feature column that appears monthly
The End of Travel (published by Ravenna Press)

A Sardine on Vacation (the book)

Berthcut & Sons is a small Philadelphia retail/mail order business, purveyor of religious goods to a dwindling clientele of clergymen, seminarians, and migrant church ladies. The novel follows the rise to power of a phlegmatic apprentice salesman, Dexter, and the corresponding decline of his Type-A superior, Gerard. The careers of these men intersect with a number of significant developments: the hostile takeover of the business by a distant conglomerate, Cerulean Enterprises; Dexter’s passive pursuit of a co-worker, Sylvia; and the ongoing mischief of three elusive antagonists: a Business Archangel, a salacious telephone voice, and Ben, the company’s star salesman whom nobody’s ever seen. The telephone voice pursues Gerard and causes his devotion to the business to waver (that is, he wastes company time on her). The Business Archangel ostensibly watches over the shop to prevent romances such as Gerard’s from developing – and the archangel will step in himself to chase off the voice and get Gerard’s mind back to business. Meanwhile, Dexter’s convinced that Ben is the archangel, and that Gerard and the shop’s manager, Doug Dugan, are either playing an elaborate trick on him or they have created Ben to cover up the loss of funds from Cerulean. The novel is divided into three parts. Part One, “The Trainee” follows a day at the office but over the span of Dexter’s first five months. This section acquaints the reader with the religious goods business, the Berthcut mentality. Part Two, “The Salesman,” runs from the fifth to tenth month of Dexter’s employment, whence his responsibilities are intensified and, also, his “true vocation” dawns on him: the priesthood. At the same time, Gerard’s business sense dulls and he becomes obsessed with getting together with the telephone Voice. Part Three, “The Manager,” presents the company’s gravest crisis, the future of the firm is in doubt.

“I felt then, and even more strongly now, that Kubrick’s films are as much about how we watch his films than anything else. Exploring how we respond to his films becomes his films raison d’etre.”

This statement best sums up the collective argument made in the eight essays in this collection. Although all of Kubrick’s films are mentioned, the essays deal specifically with The Killing, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut. The work of other filmmakers, especially the Coen Brothers, are examined to better understand Kubrick’s raison d’etre.

2001: A Space Odyssey/Kubrick interview

generosityIn this collection of fourteen stories, Life generously punishes the unsuspecting, the self-deceiver, the dreamer, and even the dead. Lethal consequences from innocuous if not innocent actions. Our destructive instincts are never deep enough inside or far behind.

A customer doesn’t show up at a restaurant after years of regularity, it causes the demise of its business and the death of the owner. A broken lawnmower prompts a father to thoughts of wiping out his family. A doctoral candidate wants to know how his mentor died – suicide or natural causes – and finds answers with which might lead to his own death. For an explorer in south Africa, the ever present roar of Victoria Falls leads to madness and murder. Meanwhile, Cortes enters the Aztec kingdom and subverts Moctezuma’s authority without really trying. An innocuous ten-day European tour becomes the background for the death of two students and a chaperone’s adulterous affair. Another marriage is frayed in a story that pits two spouses’ political beliefs over period of twenty-five years. And when a man believes he’s gone to heaven and left life’s troubles behind, he finds that he may have only been delivered to an eternity of angst.

Each “fit” of generosity thrusts itself at these and other characters, for no real good reason, save for the fact that we are here and cannot really expect much better.

educationThis short book looks at the high school experience as an unrelenting struggle among, teachers, students, parents, and administrators. The “Tales out of School” relates the everyday obstructions to learning in a classroom. Few of these obstructions have little to do with the actual subject being taught, History. Temporary rules are imposed by Mr. C, if only to salvage something in the forty-minute class. It is amazing how the teaching profession can be under-appreciated and over-sentimentalized simultaneously.

The next section poses theoretical and practical problems of teaching History. Where “Tales” represents no-man’s-land, “Behind the Lines” examines various approaches toward the education warfare.

The final section examines a solution — admittedly half-baked — to the so-called Education crisis. The proposal starts with a simple premise: what would make going to school an experience that students and teachers would actually look forward to? This is the half-baked part. Unless one sees the solution beyond all possibility for the system now in force.

liesAre lies necessary? Can Society function without them? Can individuals interrelate without them? Do the lies become real and truth when the mass of people accept them? Can society ever function on truth and reality?

The Class Body describes a class of high school sophomores bent on destroying all semblance of order in their school. An anonymous student narrates the class’s anti-social exploits, which include booing a Hindu Woman at a World Cultures assembly; cheating on tests; tormenting teachers to the point of scaring one to death during homeroom; and writing to the Pope asking to save them from teachers who want to kill them for causing the teacher to die. By chronicling their exploits, the narrator imagines a collective unconscious at work and hopes to give meaning (worthy of the greats of History) to this one year they were together.

The Rich Thief, a much different high school tale, follows two students who are overcome by an urge to steal. It starts with a teacher’s pipe and moves to items they could use, like comic books, then accelerating to difficult and unwieldy things, like lawnmowers. Very early, though, one of them, Brewer, develops a hatred for his former best friend. Their thefts create a bond that Brewer is reluctant to break for the next four years. But this may not be the only lie that Brewer is living, as he plans to pull off the ultimate theft: stealing someone’s life.

The Invisible Employee involves a recent college grad, Dexter Clatterbaugh, an amiable if aimless man, who reacts to the tedium of his job by trying to unravel the mystery of Ben, the super salesman at a small retail shop. Despite bringing a majority of the store’s sales, Dexter never meets the guy. More, he can’t believe such a go-getting worker exists. Instead, he believes his bosses, Doug and Gerard, have created a faux salesman as one of the ways to make Dexter improve on his own performance. Despite his bad attitude and an ever-present desire to quit, Dexter improbably becomes the shop’s manager and is put in a position to expose the Ben lie.

oddpursuitsHumans share the oddest pursuit in nature: they must realize their being. With jaded instincts and a faded blueprint for living, the characters in Odd Pursuits embark on a number of eccentric quests. Each story in some way deals with someone on a slippery quest and in the course of that quest usually discovers something he/she had not expected to find.

Sometimes the quests are trivial. In the end, it matters little what the seekers seek. It is the quality of the search, the way the characters strike a balance between their ambitions and their findings, that unifies the collection. It’s hoped that the reader will appreciate why so many of these stories lead to second thoughts about the nature of seeking, of “realizing our being.”

A review of Odd Pursuits (short stories)

The-End-of-Travel-93802-330pxThe End of Travel (published by Ravenna Press):

Swift meets Gombrowicz in this comic-philosophical memoir of a traveler stumbling through Europe, falling in and out of new experiences and discoursing on individuality, literature, films, growing up, and the purpose of travel.

A taxi delivered me to a dark street of row houses three minutes from the station. A forty pence fare. The minimum. Handing the driver a pound note, I said, “Keep the change.” Too much of a tip, I would think later, but the driver thanked me without the mocking tone travelers hear when they tried to ingratiate themselves to the native populace.

Praise for Odd Pursuits, by Robert Castle: in writing, there are two things, when all is said and done, that ultimately matter—what one has to say, and how well one can say it. Robert Castle fulfills on both counts. The stories and characters are complex enough for readers to find different qualities of merit.

—Diane Gray, Wild Child Publishing