Excerpt from The Webster Chronicle by Daniel Akst, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Webster Chronicle

by Daniel Akst

The Webster Chronicle
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2001, 320 pages
    Nov 2002, 320 pages

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He had the office to himself at this hour. As he smoked, he watched his father on TV. It was a nightly ritual for Terry, this business of witnessing Maury Mathers deliver bite-sized sermons from the pulpit of television, and Terry almost always performed his filial duty with the help of his friend Mary Jane. Tonight, as on most nights, Maury was by turns impassioned and learned, offering a trenchant commentary on the future of NATO. Terry tried to listen but it was hopeless. Probably because of the dope, he usually got caught up instead in the old man’s expression and rhythms, the performance aspect of his oratory, the irksome fluency his son could never emulate even if they had so much else in common. Terry and Maury looked alike, people always said, and as Terry got older the resemblance grew more pronounced, even as his father grew more theatrically sage-like in the inflating ether of television.

Terry hated television, hated it even more than he hated driving, and single-handedly persuaded the Webster schools to run an annual week without TV, during which various sporting matches, performances, and other festivities were held in a frantic attempt to make everyone forget their addiction. Afterward, sooner or later, they all drifted back, of course. Even Terry, despite his public loathing, found himself watching mindlessly during his newfound solitude. That his father should forsake the rich world of print for the tawdry evanescence of television was satisfyingly in character, he now felt, as if the elder Mathers had casually turned his back on the word itself and all its manifold offspring. It was like saying sayonara to the universe. Like dying. By watching his father pontificate, Terry could feel wholesome, uncompromising, clean.

After Maury’s nightly visit, Terry had had to tackle the task of putting together a preliminary story list for the next week’s edition, and being stoned helped with this too. It muted the harsh contrast between his father, who appeared twice daily on national television and was watched by President Reagan himself, and Terry, who sat here in Webster, where there was the local kid admitted to Harvard, word that the sewer board would probably approve sixteen new condos on the Talbert tract, and a minor brouhaha over a teacher’s smack to the ass of some kid at the Alphabet Soup Preschool. That was funny. Alphabet Soup was hugely popular in Webster; he remembered his own little boy not getting in, not passing his "observed play" test or something. Now the mother of the spanked boy wouldn’t leave Terry alone, and so he would get someone to make a couple of calls. Why not? Maybe the place was becoming too high and mighty for its own good. Besides, people always wanted to read about kids and schools. It was like Little League and animal stories---they couldn’t get enough.

There was even some sexy investigative reporting skedded: a piece on local firms that did business with the county and gave money to countywide political campaigns. He could see the subhead: Why Inmates Eat So Much Moussaka (because, as the story explained, the campaign of Mayor Dominic Loquendi for County Commission got $3,000 in donations from the Spartacus Diner in Rockton last year). Normally Terry would swell with pride at such a story, but on this night of nights he was without enthusiasm.

And so off he trudged. The Y was only a few blocks from the Chronicle, which clung to a side street like a poor relation to the nearby huddle of civic virtue that included, besides the Y, the town hall, the police station, the public library, and a few other stony buildings from 100 years before, and Terry decided to leave his car at the office, as he customarily did when he walked over to the Y to work out or coach what he still thought of as midget basketball. He liked to save money on gasoline, but like so much else with Terry it was also a matter of principle; he hated what cars had done to the planet and the culture, and he inveighed regularly in print against their poisonous and alienating consequences. Besides, on foot you observed a level of reality that was invisible when the world is seen projected onto the screen of an automobile’s windshield, and even though the temperature wasn’t much above zero and Webster had embarked on an unusually bad winter, God remained, as ever, in the details. Downtown Webster, despite its great familiarity to him, was a lonely place on a desolate wintry night, overlit here and there thanks to the local congressman’s way with federal money, and empty except for Pinot and a couple of the other places that catered to the faculty members and shrinks and investment advisers who helped make the town such a pleasantly hypocritical place to live. Turning a corner onto Main Street, he walked past The Old Bean, brightly lit like some Edward Hopper fern bar, the college students inside all jeans and hiking boots and fishermen’s knits, the girls in scarves and earrings sipping lattes behind the steamy windows while the boys, soft-faced, still looked like children. Those windows, which seemed to separate him from the warmth of his own youth, foggily emphasized how cold it was outside, in the here and now. An icy wind off the frozen Vanatee River smote him as it scoured the streets, which except for a few central blocks were still snowy from a recent storm and crunched frigidly under foot.

Reprinted from The Webster Chronicle by Daniel Akst by permission of BlueHen Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Daniel Akst. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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