By Maureen Corrigan
Monday, April 12, 2010; C02
By Jesse Kellerman
Putnam. 341 pp. $25.95
Back in the early 1980s, when I was a despondent graduate student in English, I'd sometimes get together for a beer with other despondent graduate students and we'd talk -- a tad too sympathetically -- about the case of Ted Streleski.
To us connoisseurs of literary irony, Streleski's story (and in our immaturity we regarded it solely as a "story," not as a real human tragedy) was part cautionary tale, part academic crime noir. The details have grown only sadder as the years have passed: In 1978, Streleski, a PhD candidate in mathematics at Stanford, came up behind his faculty adviser, Karel de Leeuw, and murdered him with a sledgehammer. Streleski had been a graduate student for 19 years. At his murder trial, he alleged that de Leeuw had ridiculed him in front of colleagues and obstructed his chances of securing financial aid and departmental awards.
The part of this bleak tale that we jejune students relished most was that, after the murder, Streleski took himself out for a meal of pizza and beer -- all he could afford on his graduate student's stipend. He was convicted of second-degree murder and served seven years in prison -- less than half the time he'd served in graduate school.
It's just an educated guess, but I think Jesse Kellerman knows about the Streleski case, too, and certainly appreciates the glum No Exit atmosphere of elite PhD programs that the crime underscores. (One clue: Kellerman thanks a Stanford philosophy professor for his input on the "acknowledgments" page.) The antihero of Kellerman's fourth thriller is Joseph Geist, a stalled doctoral candidate in philosophy. When the novel opens, Joseph has just been booted out of the apartment he shares with his girlfriend in Cambridge and suspended from the roll of philosophy graduate students because his dissertation is deader than Immanuel Kant's sense of humor.
Geist's daunting research topic, by the way, is "free will" -- so it's slyly appropriate that this story is ruled over by fate, undermining Geist's wobbly belief in Nietzsche's assertion that we humans "bear ultimate responsibility for creating ourselves." One of Geist's few cherished possessions is a cast-iron half-head of Nietzsche that he bought in a flea market. By the time this deliciously doom-laden novel ends, Nietzsche's half-headed notions about existential free will will be exposed as hopelessly half-baked.
The novel's ominous overture is sounded when the jobless Geist, who's been camping out on a friend's couch, spots a curious ad in the Harvard Crimson:
"SERIOUS APPLICANTS ONLY."
Soon, he's wending his way to the isolated home of Alma Spielmann, an elderly woman whose refined Viennese background he finds enormously appealing. Faster than you can say "Sachertorte," he graduates from his afternoon sessions of paid Kultur-chat with Alma to a full-time position as her trusted houseguest. The plan, according to the generous Alma, is that Geist will complete his dissertation under her roof, without the annoying distraction of having to hold down a regular job or socialize with his grad-school friends.
And so, his world shrinks. Together with Alma, he dines, discusses the events of the day and devotes daily quality time to her guilty pleasure: the soap opera "One Life to Live." ("Suspend judgment, Mr. Geist," she dryly advises him on his first viewing.) She becomes the obsessive focus of his life, a psychological situation that portends disaster when her charming leech of a nephew begins turning up at her door. "Why did [Alma] allow herself to be fooled?" the miserable Geist asks himself.
"Endlessly I compared myself to him. I was the book; he was the movie. . . . I was subtle where he was obvious, refined where he was crass, etc., etc., all manner of self-congratulatory sniping that did not improve my mood one whit. Because I could not deny the way Alma looked at him . . . reluctantly I came to the conclusion that I had once again overestimated my own importance, and underestimated people's capacity for self-deception. Sometimes, it seemed, a lady just wanted to go to the movies."
This psychologically charged situation can't end well. The fun of reading Kellerman's novel, however, arises not from the shock of the inevitable (murder, most foul!), but from the clever twists and turns that lead readers up to and away from the climactic moment. And, as evidenced by that snippet of lunacy quoted above, Geist's lively and erudite narration is a pleasure to be misled by. It will spoil nothing to reveal that Geist eventually lives out his dream of teaching philosophy to a captivated gaggle of students. And he never has to worry about tenure! But the celebratory beer and pizza will have to wait.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.