I often ponder whether good fiction needs to be autobiographical. “Write about what you know,” goes the old adage. It’s a paradox and a dilemma. The author draws on the real world in order to create a fictional world. The author is stuck between reality and creativity. There’s the tension between egotism and humanity. (Writing from your own experience is egocentric.) Then there’s the dilemma between inspiration and slander. The more authentic your characters, the more chance that your inspirations take exception.
Kevin McAleer’s latest novel has the authenticity of autobiography, the schadenfreude of observing ridiculous people, and the anxieties of dishing the dirt.
Like McAleer, the hero is a white male from Los Angeles, a specialist in modern German history, a routine resident of Berlin, and a failure in the early 1990s to transition from doctorate to professorship.
Despite doing some of the right things—such as publishing his dissertation through a respected press and attending his discipline’s annual conferences—he also does things that were becoming cancelable offenses 30 years ago. He mocks left-wing politics. He objectifies women. He corrects his peers and disciplines his students. He is flippant, politically incorrect, and libatious.
He is snarky even with his generous parents, who confront him with a questionnaire titled “Are you an alcoholic?” He points out, “It also says the first stage of alcoholism is denial, so if I admit to being one then maybe I’m not.”
Converting his dissertation into a book, he stays late in his employer’s cellar drinking beer reserved for hospitality. He is not diplomatic in an interview for the diplomatic service. He spurns a job offer at a remote teaching college in Mississippi. In the end, he realizes that real history jobs are being replaced with ethnic, gender, and sexuality studies, and that the invitations to apply encourage everybody but white males.
The joys of this book are in the risqué puns, the sharp observations of academic hypocrisies and pretensions, the hero’s ironic scrapes, his foreshadowing of failure while he struggles on.
The hero starts off in Berlin while the wall between East and West is falling, crunching to finish his dissertation. “All my history-writing had prevented me from experiencing history in the making, which seemed symptomatic, though I wasn’t sure of what.” The crunch prompts his first revelation of academia’s fundamental pretension: “The truth was you didn’t have to be a so-called intellectual to get a Ph.D. since it was just application, endurance, and follow-through.”
The style is direct, conversational, colloquial, revelatory—like a personal diary or a letter to a friend. In some chapters, the reader is a passenger to an exquisitely described seduction or interview. Such chapters resettle the authenticity. Intervening chapters err to satire and whimsy.
McAleer’s digs at academia may seem ridiculous to outsiders, but are discomfitingly realistic in my experience. For instance, the hero’s method of interlocution is not a discussion of his dissertation, but an unpredictable bombardment with metaphysical questions, such as, “Do you buy into the Hegelian notion that ideas ultimately make history?” No wonder the hero is cynical already.
One of his job interviews is with an incongruous pairing: a female professor and a priest, “one of those older, red-faced, alcoholic Jesuits who has tenure the day he assumes holy orders and doesn’t take these things too seriously.”
The next interviewers delve high-mindedly into his dissertation, concluding that he’s “obviously not applying Marx here.” He reveals he’s “anti-Marx.” The panel’s “complete silence” is as good as a “collective gasp.” “Like most history faculties, you just knew that half of them were armchair Marxists and the other half didn’t have the balls to be outspoken opponents.”
In Germany he works with academics whose Marxism signals repudiation of Nazism. “The commies get a pass not only because Marxism was a so-called scientific theory . . . but the Marxists were high-minded and striving for world peace and social utopia.” The hero tries to reason with his colleagues. So ends another post-doc.
The hero’s most memorable post-doc is in Israel, at a feminist research center, where women talk to each other about their latest discovery of patriarchy in the writings of somebody of no importance. “Everybody was so busy subverting paradigms and reframing narratives that I could barely recall what their subject matter was.” The hero sits at the back with the only other man, trading characterizations: “A cheerleading squad for Team Woman?” “Not really, deep-down it’s group therapy.”
He returns to the annual round of interviews with a claim to expertise in the burgeoning field of women’s history. Yes, the hero does compromise his honesty in his effort to get a job, and you wonder whether it might work. He gives a job talk where he argues that the rise of fascism was mostly a fear of communism. He skips the other explanations lest he be accused of apologizing for fascism. During one of the exquisitely presented chapters, the hero admits some hard truths: that his talk on fascism was “almost daring them to find me out,” he was “offhand,” he errs between “a cavalier style” and “a bit smarmy.”
But self-awareness is too little too late to clarify whether he should be in or out. In between post-docs, he returns to Los Angeles and unemployment, followed by substitute teaching, followed by a permanent teaching position in a high school, where the first language is Spanish—for which he needs a translator. Most of the teachers are women. The mothers of the students beg him to be firm. He throws basketballs and erasers. Eventually he is reprimanded, but not fired or prosecuted.
He leaves of his own accord—for yet another post-doc in Berlin. After five years on the job market, he looks like damaged goods, while academia has become too woke for his demographic. He ends the novel as a guide for American tourists.
McAleer’s humor is a mix of crass and intellectual. After too much French food, “my bowel was having more movements than a Mahler symphony.” Many of the jokes are racial. Interviewing in Mississippi, he observes white and black students, but “no Asians that I could see—probably all indoors studying.”
He dates a French painter who is currently using only the color white. “What is white in Los Angeles?” “Not much these days,” he responds.
When hired into a new teaching program, he realizes he is starting with three black and two non-black students. “I was looking forward to putting all this in my new job application stateside: I am currently teaching at a majority-black college in Berlin where I am also the acting departmental head. . . .”
One of those students jokes that he should change his skin color. “Hey, that’s below the belt,” he responds.
McAleer had trouble finding publishers for this and earlier novels. Like my own novel (The Dark Side of Sunshine), Postdoc takes a dig at publishers, by having the hero meet up with an equally cynical sales representative, who opines that academic hiring committees “don’t know their own minds—they need the imprimatur of major presses. God forbid they should make a hiring or tenure decision based on simple good sense.”
McAleer did publish his dissertation with a major press, but his novels were rejected by hundreds of publishers and agents. They are published by PalmArtPress, a small publisher of fiction and non-fiction, in both English and German. It’s good to know, because, as I have reported before, most publishers pretend that woke literature is the only literature.
Good on PalmArtPress and Kevin McAleer for proving once again that the best literature is anti-woke.