Many "coming-of-age" books include a chapter or two about a Teacher from Hell -- an evil troll hovering over the head of a young aspiring talent, threatening to squash his tender soul.
John Dolan knows something about it. He IS this Professor from Hell, ruling over the multitudes of unwilling pre-med students in Otago, New Zealand -- the hicks of the South Seas, obliged to take his Communication class. They hate it, every one of them. And they hate him. At the end of three years on this rock, in a freezing ocean, he will be hated by 2100 students.
John Dolan is on their minds, their sneers, their obscenities in the bathroom stalls, on their made-to-order T-shirts: "I turned the shirt over and there I was. Behold the man: a round pumpkin head, completely bald. Jowly, pouting, puffed cheeks. Mouth set in a blank scowl. Eyes half-open, one lid drooping. And over the head the caption: 'BLA BLA BLA.'"
He is a powerful, hated tyrant, who has to avoid the watering holes of his indentured slaves, to whom he denies good grades due to their pathetic compositions and flunked tests. It's not exactly a setting for the most subtle literary discussions: The big pubs are on the George Street, and the weekend mating rituals are held there. A group of six young males, all dead drunk, ritually collides with a complementary group of six young females, also dead drunk. Next the vomiting ceremony, ritual prelude to actual mating. It is traditionally held on the sidewalk outside the pub, and features competitions for volume, distance and accuracy. Couples then pair off with full deniability all round. Sex with rancid digestive acid mixing on two breaths... but they are young, the hormones require little help.
And that is no small achievement! Dolan is at the pinnacle of his power -- after spending so many years as a lonely, lowly nerd in a bland, beige-colored Bay Area suburb of Pleasant Hill, and then in post-hippie Berkeley University.
It was an unassuming, eventless post-war childhood in one of the new developments springing all over the country: "When I arrived, a plump squinting toddler, it was a baking desert, raw adobe some developer just dropped ranch houses on. It looked like Los Alamos -- the 'After' shot. With houses added to fool the Russians. No grass, no trees, no interest first 24 months, GI loan. I am the puffy, wincing child beside the car."
He kept on as a puffy, wincing boy, shoved aside by jocks, ignored by divine pre-Raphaelite hippie girls: "It was a spell I could never muster, the magical passage to the forest of Lothlorien -- that is to say, access to the hippie goddesses of Pleasant Hill High School... Even now my nose and eyes sting when I think of them, lump in my sagging baleen throat just remembering their smiles, O most beautiful, to-be-adored-even-in-the-depth-of-Purgatory goddesses, the twelve-odd hippie girls who graced the ninth grade at Pleasant Hill High School."
Peace and love and those hippie girls. Once in a while, all the rules of the game were out, and even lonely bookworms could supposedly get a break. And, of course, like everything else it was a lie: "The good parts of American movies are always lies. The bad part is always true -- the twerp's apartment before the starlet arrives, Carrie home from the prom in tears to embrace her house. Which then implodes, taking her with it, straight down to hell."
Young John described his hopeless, scorching, physically painful love for Leigh Akers - one of those Ophelias, the Super People of the school. It is the best, most powerful description I've seen in many years, probably ever. The only comparable writing I can recall comes from Russian poetry of the Silver Age, the early 20-th century, and of the Nautilus Pompilius song "I Want to be with You," which became the biggest hit ever -- a rare combination of a true talent and popularity - in late 80's, the glory days of the Soviet rock.
But the 60's weren't about love and peace and happy togetherness for the lambs and lions of the existing social order. In its horrible truth it all was just a conspiracy by some mean, scrawny, moody twerps to charm those dreamy, willowy hippie beauties. It was a closed, elitist clique in itself -- and fattish nerds who loved Tolkien books didn't qualify: "Leigh went on to fall in love with a scrawny hippie, shorter than she was, named 'Jacques.' He spoke California English with the mean nasal monotone of the born cool. Jacques was a perfect male for the Peace and Love era, nothing but bones and passive meanness, 120 pounds of ice with long hair on top... he'd've been the perfect anti-ship weapon: an iceberg with long hair and some song about love playing non-stop to attract the ship... -- and Leigh plays the Titanic."
But even the worst things -- even the torture of the high school -- end eventually. Those were the great expectations, the usual possibilities of breaking his loser curse: "If BART hadn't opened, I'd've had to move to the dorms. The dorms saved many, many of my kind. They met their kin there, learned to live without the flinch. Most of the tormentors were left behind in the suburbs. The SAT filtered them out of the admission line like substandard tomatoes. They had to stay on the hot, dull side of the hills... to fill out their days fixing cars. Or selling them. Or gassing them up."
But that stupid, inefficient, constantly breaking down BART train did finally get built and Dolan ended up living at home during his college years, meaning bad luck yet again: "Fall 1975. My first semester at Berkeley. The fall of Saigon -- and of the hippies. To their utter astonishment, the women defected. The check came due for the male slaughters of the sixties -- for Woodstock, the stylized that passed for sex among the peace and love people. And the waiter brought it straight to me."
The odyssey continued: "I walked around that campus attracting no more attention than a Snickers wrapper. It was miserable, but that went without saying. And it was easily explained, in historical terms. Remember, I was a Soviet child, raised on public lies and no wiser at 18 than at 8. And if, in the year 1975, you were very, very stupid and bookbound and naive -- if you never talked to anyone and believed everything you read in papers -- you just might be dumb enough to think everyone was alone now, because all mating, all men/women business, had officially stopped."
All women supposedly went lesbo, ditching their jocks and even hippie boyfriends. That, at least, was a comforting thought for an asocial loser, his remaining refuge. John even ended up befriended -- as toy or a puppy -- by a couple of dykes, one of whom was a former Super Person from the high school.
A human is a herd animal -- no matter what libertarian loonies claim. He can endure awful misery, remaining content and happy, if he sees that everybody around him is in the same shit. There is no more powerful cohesive force than this feeling, and there is no disappointment more painful when it shatters as a lie yet again. That happened when Dolan for the first time stays into the evening on the campus and sees an ordinary boy-girl couple, which by that time should've gone the way of the Dodo. It was a life-changing revelation: "Don't tell me I didn't see it! I have a video. In my head. My Kennedy-assassination tape. Proof of a massive conspiracy. Because it was obvious: she was with him. Despite what all the angry-women writers in the Sunday-Feature articles said, despite the alleged historical inevitability of my noble isolation. All that, I realized, was a lie, and not worth one millionth of what some generic male had been given, RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME!"
Most of the "reminiscences of a lonely outsider" genre books are laced with coquetry of a sort, winking at the reader, stroking him for a tear or a smile. The dumber ones do it in an obvious, self-serving manner, the better ones use subtler tricks. John Dolan's book is unique. From the first page you know there won't be any nauseatingly mushy happy ending, no flirting or flinching. Only a daring, relentless march through the hellish social landscape of the 60's and 70's California -- the land of love and peace. This book is an exploration of loserdom on the Lewis and Clark scale. I know I could never write with nearly such brutal honesty about my own many failings, neither perhaps could any writer today.
Some readers don't take it too well, whining in their Amazon.com reviews: "I want to see something redemptive in a book. I want to see characters - even ONE - change for the better. I want to see people learn lessons. If there are a lot of nasty deeds being done - whether they be sexual, drug-induced, hate-filled, whatever - I want to see someone regret something they've done, learn from their mistakes, you know?"
Bwaaah! There is no chicken soup for this poor soul. No Fruit Loops either. This is raw stuff -- blood and bile, for the few and the brave.
John Dolan's writing can be a bit longish in a few places (e.g. in describing his night shifts with Max the guard dog at a truck stop -- the only fault I can find with this book), but it is never sloppy. It is also free of the unreadable post-modernist bullshit (sorry, folks, I never went to creative writing, composition 101, or comparative literature classes to make an exact categorization). For all the length of the book it remains brilliant, powerful, absorbing.
In a culture where on the front shelves of a bookstore you'd find the "Lovely Bones," "Five People you'll Meet in Heaven," Dan Brown's medieval kitsch, as well as whole aisles of the "Chicken Soup" look-alikes -- Pleasant Hell will not be a best-seller. But for an Exile reader it is an absolute must. Buy and read this book! I can only join Edward Limonov's blurb on the cover: "Glory to Master Dolan!"