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We craved answers, and hope. They offered neither. 

Instead they gave us gut-felt reflections on the choices we should’ve made, but hadn’t, the loves we could’ve had, if we’d only known how. 

Then they painted a poignant word picture:  a tear trickling down the cheek of a child who’s just lost his parents, but at least has learned something of life.

Right there, they had us, and what could we do.

At first, they ruled with the firm but loving hand of a revered high-school English teacher.  We hung on every word of their speeches.  We cheered as they dressed down their critics.  We relished recounting their unscripted calls to a prominent reactionary radio talk-show host, marveled at how easily they demolished her arguments, remaining gentlemen all the while.

We were stunned by the news:  they’d taken the prominent reactionary radio talk-show host as a lover.

They insisted they hadn’t lost their edge, or their sense of humor, especially about themselves. 

To prove their point, they replaced the Department of Defense with a Department of Tired Homilies Presented as Sophisticated Insights into Our Failings, and Those of Our Parents.  When that move fell flat, they put Rumsfeld on trial, on charges of convoluted syntax and the serial use of inappropriate metaphors. 

In a blushing, possibly scripted aside, at the launching of a new battleship—the USS George Saunders—the no-longer-reactionary radio talk-show host implied that the sex was amazing. 

They swept the National Book Awards.  In their acceptance speech, they told us O’Hara was better than Cheever.  We laughed—we’d grown soft, living under democracy, making a fetish of mocking our elders. 

An edict came down:  we had to read his stuff by the end of the week. 

We liked Cheever, and felt skeptical.  Not to mention uneasy, getting homework from the state.  But when we got down to reading, we saw they were right. 

They gave us more reading lists.  Their own work—not just the New Yorker pieces, but everything, down to adolescent doggerel in notebooks they’d never shown to anyone.  Stories by friends, from obscure university quarterlies.  Their late mothers’ collected epigrams—the source, we realized, of much that we found powerful in their own work.  A bunch of stuff by Robbe-Grillet epigones, from an anthology they’d bought while strolling along the Seine with Laetitia, the girl they’d loved their whole junior year abroad, but never had the courage to kiss. 

They made us do writing exercises, every morning before work.  We wrote what we knew.  They threw it back at us, said we were shit.  We rewrote what we knew—taking out adjectives and passive constructions, adding a bit at the end, about a realization we’d achieved, during one of the trials that make up this thing we call life. 

They allowed that we might have a shot.

We wrote more, mostly on work time.  Productivity declined, but our bosses said nothing—a decree had made it illegal to keep us from taking the shot we might have.

There were shortages.  The middle-aged short-story writers mocked our grumbling about the lack of toilet paper, sugar, and non-educational television.  They reminded us that we had our friends, our health, and bookstores filled with high-quality short fiction, in beautifully bound editions, at subsidized prices.  And we had love, dammit—the love between writers and readers.  The only true love there is.

We exchanged baffled looks.  They slammed their fists on the table and stormed out of the kitchen.  We wished Mom had had the courage to stick it out through the drinking. 

We resented the prominent shading-back-toward-reactionary radio talk-show host, despite our amazement at the shapeliness of her fiftyish legs, and unreconstructed bust.

We stopped writing.  They didn’t care. 

In hushed tones, we blamed ourselves.

The first challenge came from the precocious twenty-something novelists.  They were young and wry and wore stylish non-prescription glasses.  They talked a big game, about big issues.  They’d written long books;  they could handle a long struggle.  We remembered being moved by their twenty thousand-word memoir of meeting Saul Bellow, in line outside the Clam Shack in Essex, Massachusetts.

The middle-aged short-story writers insisted we re-read that memoir, taking note of the solipsistic tone and overuse of adverbs.  They reminded us we’d scorned Bellow’s longer works as flabby and plotless.

The battle was pitched.  But the outcome was never in doubt.  The precocious twenty-something novelists couldn’t make a point in under a hundred pages.  We snickered when the prominent openly-reactionary-again radio talk-show host mocked their mealy mouths and needle dicks.  We rolled our eyes when they declared Zadie Smith the mistress of the new revolution. 

We pawned off Everything Is Illuminated on an unsuspecting officemate. 

The precocious twenty-something novelists were allowed to live, and most remained free.  But they were forbidden to publish anything longer than ten pages.  And Charlie Rose, their most prominent sympathizer, wound up in a cell with Rumsfeld. 

There was a thaw.  We focused on work.  The store shelves filled up;  sports reappeared on television.  The middle-aged short-story writers parted ways with the prominent Genghis Khan-sympathizer radio talk-show host.  But the breakup was amicable.  She didn’t make cracks when callers asked about the rumor she’d been supplanted by Parsha, a twenty-something supermodel-cum-documentary filmmaker. 

We wondered:  Had the revolution gone soft?  Had it lost its way?

No, the middle-aged short-story writers insisted, in a flurry of new stories, about the joys of rediscovering purpose, via a torrid affair with a girl who was just like the girls they’d known way back when, and was about the age those girls had then been. 

Those stories burned with a fire we’d forgotten stories could burn with.  And they made us horny.  We thought a renaissance was nigh. 

But then Parsha disappeared.  Rumors said she’d gone over to the resistance.  At their increasingly rare public appearances, the middle-aged short-story writers ranted about the disappointments of age, novels they’d wanted to write, screenplays they’d written, and sold for a pittance, to a studio whose lowest flunky wouldn’t return their calls. 

The rumors were true.  The turncoat Parsha and her motley crew of renegade documentary filmmakers couldn’t light or mike for shit.  Their premises were skewed, their interview questions leading.  But through skillful editing, they convinced us the regime would soon fall, and the National Book Awards had been rigged. 

The middle-aged short-story writers turned defensive.  In three thousand beautifully crafted words, in the September Atlantic, they said they’d once held the paw of a puppy as it was put to sleep, and asked how we could leave them, damaged as they were.

We scoffed when the open-mike hip-hop poetry slam contest winners declared they’d seize power / in an hour / less time than it takes / to take a f*ing hot shower.  They were a tiny band of underweight, overtattooed wiggers, fighting in the mountains.  We figured they’d rush to lay down their mikes, if offered a publishing deal and a case of forties. 

Then they made quick—and bloody—work of Parsha and company, after an interview taping at an undisclosed redoubt. 

The quality of their clandestine broadcasts improved as they approached the capital.  Our windows shook to the rhythm of a beat we couldn’t dance to. 

Their PR team placed photos in newspapers, of their leaders playing golf, drinking white wine. 

We hoped that if we didn’t resist, they’d turn the music down. 

We cringed at the thought of more puppy stories. 

The end came quicker than we expected.  One snowy twilight, the middle-aged short-story writers told their comely if bookish undergraduate assistant to warm up the Volvo.  By the time they’d packed, the open-mike hip-hop poetry slam contest winners, old-school boomboxes blaring, had reached the ridge overlooking the city.

The middle-aged short-story writers tossed their stuff in the back, asked their bookish but comely undergraduate assistant to slide over, got in, and drove off, headed toward Yaddo. 

In the middle of Dead Man’s Curve, the Volvo hit an oil slick.  We screamed as it plowed through the unreinforced guardrail, plummeted into the canyon below, and burst into flames. 

But as a single tear trickled down our cheek, we realized it had to be.  Pointless sacrifice, sad acceptance, searing regret—the essential elements of a perfect ending.  So much talent, burning away, in skyward-shooting flames—the ideal metaphor for the brief, shining moment that was the tyranny of the middle-aged short-story writers. 

     [Forever after at]


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