Excerpt from Pym by Mat Johnson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by Mat Johnson

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  • First Published:
    Mar 2011, 336 pages
    Sep 2012, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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Print Excerpt

“You drunk. I’m tired as all hell. The sooner you get your ass out of here, the sooner you get to get your ass out of here,” Garth offered, but he left. So then I walked over to the president’s house to punch him and maybe kick him a few times too.

In my head, I was getting “gangsta,” which I’ve always felt showed greater intent than getting “gangster” in that it expresses a willful unlawfulness even upon its own linguistic representation. I was going to show him how we do where I’m from, go straight Philly on him, and I knew all about that because, although I had never actually punched someone in the face before, as a child I myself had been on the receiving end of that act several times and was a quick study.

The president’s house was at the other end of the campus, but it was a small liberal arts campus. An empty space, dorms and buildings deserted, solar streetlamps popping on and off for just me. While I was walking, stoking my anger, thinking of all the work I’d done and all that security I was now being denied, I came to the administration building, and I saw that there was a light on. Downstairs, in the back, in the president’s office. No one just left interior lights on, the environmental footprint too massive, the cost too high, and with every attack the prices went even higher. So he was in there. The outside door opened, and I knew he was in there.

And then there was this overwhelming emotion. It was not rage or anger. It was something even more illicit, unwanted. It was hope. Here we were, two men alone. Society vacated, and now just two men and a problem, one that somehow in my stupor seemed workable. There was a guy down the hall, a Romanticist, who had been denied tenure ten years ago. Approved by the faculty committee, just as I was, only to be shot down by the same president in the same manner. And he had, in his grief, approached the all-powerful boss man, and he had repented all of his sins, real and imagined, and was granted a permanent teaching gig. It made sense too, for as Frederick Douglass’s narrative tells us, it is more valuable to a master to have a morally broken slave than to have a confident one. That Romanticist’s story had always seemed humiliating to me before this moment, but suddenly it became inspirational. At the president’s door, I paused, prepared myself for what could be simply the final test before I overcame my troubles. I took a deep breath to prepare for a performance of dignified groveling. Then I heard the music coming from inside.

What I saw scared me. Took me out of my confidence, my momentum. What do you make of a Jew sitting in the dark listening to Wagner in this day and age? I could think of no more call to the end of the world than the one I was looking at. Random violence on the news had become background noise to me at that point, but this scene genuinely scared my ass. Still in his bow tie and tweed jacket at this time of night, it was disgusting. He hit his keyboard quickly, and suddenly the sound became Mahler, but I knew, I knew what I’d heard. As the sound cleansed the room, the bald man just looked at me, drink in hand. As drunk as I was, I could still smell the sweet singe of alcohol hanging in the air.

“My shit!” it came out. It lacked the eloquence of a planned rebuttal, but he understood.

“Packed by movers, delivered to your listed residence. A thank-you, really, for your service. Thank you.” He said the last bit as if I should be saying this to him, but still it robbed me of a bit of my momentum. I had been surviving on righteous indignation and self-pity for weeks, I realized once the supply seemed threatened. But then I remembered I’d been canned and my fuel line kicked in once more.

* Matthew Henson excluded

Excerpted from Pym by Mat Johnson. Copyright © 2011 by Mat Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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