OneMansView, October 29, 2008
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In this short, tragic, and insightful novel, Marcus Messner, the "perfect" son of a Newark kosher butcher, steps into the adult world at age nineteen, finding it puzzling, stimulating, hostile, and even overwhelming. Set during the height of the Korean War, in 1951, Marcus has been forced to transfer to a small Christian college in Winesburg, Ohio, because his father has smothered him with obsessive concerns for his safety.
To say that Marcus finds life on the Winesburg campus jarring is an understatement. The idyllic nature of campus life pictured in the brochure is quickly shattered, when a roommate drives Marcus to smash a Beethoven record that he has been playing loudly at all hours. After changing dormitory rooms, Marcus, a virgin, musters up the courage to ask out a quiet fellow student, only to be completely flummoxed by her sexual prowess. A meeting with the dean of students, regarding Marcus' frequent room changes, degrades into Marcus lecturing the dean on the merits of Russell's "Why I am not a Christian," as an argument to avoid mandatory chapel attendance. Marcus' pursuit of his studies, of his perfect life, all of a sudden takes a back seat to all of the difficulties that have entered his life.
The author captures so well the psychology of perfectionism, the drive to be always right, and the toll that it takes when it is discovered that being perfect is scarcely acknowledged, that being superior is a fragile psychological position, that intellectual rigor does not drive the world, and that it is hard to place women into a "perfect" slot, to say the least. And in this case, the rude awakening exerts its forces quickly and dramatically.
Perhaps the reader could hope for more, especially concerning Marcus' almost girlfriend. Yet, the author does succinctly and efficiently portray the complexities that await those who are or have been convinced that life will proceed without encumbrances, or who have not had the time to sufficiently mature. Interestingly, Marcus would have done well to fully appreciate his mother's newfound resolve to stick with his father despite his deteriorating behavior. Maybe a lesson delivered much too late.