This story is going directly onto my top-ten list for the year. I enjoyed this more than any DeLillo I’ve read, and I’m going to assume that it’s not excerpted from a novel. (Readers will remember “The Falling Man,” a DeLillo “story” in The New Yorker that was, in fact, a single story line extracted from his novel of the same name; DeLillo himself didn’t even do the extracting.) Although I have some qualms about the ending, the rest of the story is completely engaging.
Two college students, Todd and Robby, take long walks in their college town where there is little else to distract them. On these walks they engage in verbal battles, the point of which seems to be to sound as plausible as possible while making up explanations for things, or naming them. The narrator, Robby, for example, points to a tree and pronounces, “Norway maple,” although he’s not sure that it’s even a maple, much less the variety, but adds the specific to build credibility (like a fiction writer!). An ongoing discussion they have involves what kind of coat a man they see sometimes is wearing. Is it an anorak? A parka? Or something else?
Meanwhile, they are in a logic class with Professor Ilgauskas, who is wonderfully odd. Jenna, a girl in the class whom the narrator seems to like, tells Robby she’s seen Ilgauskas in the town diner, reading Doestoevsky. Jenna reports that she quoted a line of poetry to him, “like midnight in Dostoevsky,” but that the professor didn’t answer. (The line is from "Meditations in an Emergency" by Frank O’Hara.
The story feeds the boys’ ongoing debate about the man in the parka, and Robby now constructs an elaborate explanation for him—he’s from Russia, Ilgauskas is his son, etc. Because they are competitive, and because Todd seems to be a bit brighter (a “determined thinker”) and looks odd (“tall and sprawling, all bony framework”). In the end, Todd decides to test the explanation by speaking to the man, but Robby protests that this will spoil everything. What he really means by that, I think, is that it will end their discussions by exposing their fiction to the truth. And this conflict brings the boys to blows, in an awkward sort of way.
There is so much going on in this story! The character of Todd is fascinating and, it seems to me, Robby is taken with him, not in a sexual way—he seems interested in Jenna—but in a hero-worship way. After all, his parents are absent (Dad’s in Beijing and mom is off somewhere with her exotic boyfriend) and all he really has is the connection to Todd. This is threatened by what Todd proposes to do. And so Robby, who is still a boy, lashes out.
November 30, 2009: “Midnight in Dostoevsky” by Don DeLillo