“A rich comedic portrait of American family life, public schools, and politics.”
—The Caravaggio Art Center Bulletin
“Sexual dysfunction and presidential stupidity have never been so sadly riveting and distressingly familiar.”
—Welders Weekly Gazette
“A perfect representation of postmodern despair: hopeless civic cynicism and individual apathy produce a sense of futility that recent cultural history more than seems to justify. … A must-read.”
President Herb Plant thought he could squeeze in a quick game of internet Hearts before the update meeting began with his Education Secretary. He disliked interruptions from his routine when he was on his ranch in Texas: two hours of exercise, maybe a bike ride or a run, another couple of hours overseeing the chores (he enjoyed trimming brush and encouraged media access whenever he was engaged in this activity, though acute observers realized that he did this work at the wrong time of the year), then a late afternoon bit of fishing at his trout-stocked pond. He really preferred to keep the political bidness part of his life to a minimum when he was on vacation, for this free time seemed to go by faster every year. Occasionally, Pete Knotts, his Vice President, would stop by to brief him on the progress of the wars, and there never failed to be some progress to report. Pete knew how to cheer him up. Hell, Pete was the one who’d given Herb the advice to invade Iraq and then Iran, and he’d laid out all the reasons convincingly: refusal to observe U.N. resolutions, their ties to terrorist factions, weapons of mass destruction that were being built at this very minute, and finally there was the very nature of dictatorships. Tyrannies were a constant thorn in the side of democracies like the U.S., Herb thought, unless of course they were willing to accept renditioned prisoners and methodically pry out of them information we were too squeamish to learn.
Herb’s card-playing skills were remarkably similar to his foreign policy intuitions. He was a unilateralist, thought only about himself, and refused adamantly to team with the other three players to get low man. He’d drop the queen on high man if it saved his butt just as quickly as he’d bomb Tehran. If the Frenchies or the Rooskies disagreed with his play, then he would simply employ a stalling tactic. As the host of his table, he controlled all the levers of power: no one could kick him off because it was his table; and if they wanted to call him names like “ducker” (someone who doesn’t cover their pass) or “ass-wipe” (someone who plays like used toilet paper) or prance around on their high horse pretending there were unwritten rules to the game (someone who resembles an intellectual elite), well, then they could go right ahead and whine. He had a personal assistant (a dog groomer he’d promoted from Houston) who would take over and play a card every three minutes. See how much they liked forty-five minutes a hand. Ha! They’d eventually tire and quit and he’d receive the forfeit points which would just add to his Advanced rating. The President was a competitive man. He liked to win. And he didn’t much care how he won. Politics attracted him for the very same reason.
While he was typing in his password (“LoneRanger”), his secretary notified him that Clayton “Cap” Geiger, his chief political advisor, was on line one.
“Tell him it’s jammed, Ruth. You can’t get through.”
“But Mr. President, …”
“Go ahead. Cap will laugh.”
“I really doubt it, sir.”
Geiger had mishandled a dirty tricks campaign in Connecticut at the last mid-terms, and the foolish lackeys who’d been apprehended were now sitting in court blaming the White House and the Republican National Committee. Sifting through the phone records, prosecutors had traced the strategy back to Geiger’s office, or at least one he used occasionally. Fortunately for the President, the media wasn’t giving the story much play.
“I can’t hear you, Cap,” Herb shouted into the receiver. He banged the hearing end on his desk. “Cap, is that you?”
“Mr. President, …”
“It’s awfully staticky. … Cap, … Cap, is that you? … You say the election is looking tight, … tighter than an old maid’s ass?”
“Mr. President, …”
Herb hung up and pressed line two, which was flashing.
Ruth advised him that Todd Coover, his man at Education, had arrived. “Toodles,” as Herb liked to call him, lived in nearby Houston and had once owned the dog grooming franchise wherein the President had met his trusty aide. Toodles was a successful entrepreneur, he had a degree from Oral Roberts, and he’d moved from the pet world into education, establishing a string of flourishing private Christian academies throughout the Southwest that were founded upon a business model. Still, the President found educational issues boring, and the only reason he’d appointed Coover to his post was that the training center at his kennel had halted the poop-eating habits of one of his Scotties - that and the fact that he’d also been a large donor throughout Herb’s political career. Why he felt he had the right to stop in whenever he pleased was a question the President couldn’t answer. Sure, some of Toodles’ thinkers had devised legislation, the Every Child Will Learn Act, that they’d guided through the Republican Congress (not a particularly tough assignment), and he intended to highlight it next year in his re-election campaign, but Herb was as skeptical as the next guy about how to assess learning progress. (Hell, he wasn’t sure how he’d graduated from Dartmouth.)
As Coover entered with several of his aides, the President spun from his computer screen and rose to shake hands. His dad had always told him that a forceful handshake told a lot about a man, and his dad, though a boor, had been President, too. Toodles’ grip was firm and reassuring.
“Mr. President,” began the Education Secretary, “Some of our concerns about ECWL (he pronounced it “eckwill”) need to be addressed, especially in light of your upcoming speech next …”
“Excuse me, Too-dulls, but what was that one word you used?”
Coover cleared his throat at the President’s public use of his nickname. When the President pronounced it like that instead of poodles, it really grated on him. “Eckwill, sir? Your Every Child Will Learn act?”
“Why do they call it eckwill? Is that some sort of snipe?” While the President was an inveterate towel-snapper, he was very sensitive to affronts himself, though he pretended to be self-effacing.
“It’s an acronym, sir. We in the government (Todd knew that the President preferred to consider himself outside the governmental bureaucracy, only intervening as a deus ex machina whenever crises arose) kind of sounded it out for shorthand purposes.”
“Hmmmm,” replied Herb. “Nice, … nice, Toodles.”
“Sir, let me get to the point. The schools appear to be under a great deal of pressure with the mandates incorporated within our legislation, and they could use a bit more funding. I know budgetary matters are tight while we’re prosecuting two wars, and our ultimate goal is to force the states’ hands to engage in more experimentation. I’m also aware that the deficit is over 400 billion …”
“417, Tood. We projected it to be 500 so that when it came in under that … we could say that we’re making progress. And I really believe we are. The economy’s starting to move. The defense industry is going to spur our recovery.”
“So, … is that a yes or a no, sir?”
“Let me discuss it with Cap first, okay? He’s on line one, but we’ve got a bad connection.” The President laughed to himself. “I’ve got people clamoring for money to build dams, levees, to protect ports and nucular sites. Some knuckleheads even want to raise the minimum wage.” He sighed as if all the administration’s budgetary restrictions were not the result of his profligate tax cuts. “I am, however, looking for a fourth this afternoon to play golf, Mr. Secretary? You haven’t got a bit of free time for a dog leg, have you?” he asked with a chuckle.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Todd replied. “Those days are long past. I do, however, have a meeting this afternoon in Dallas with an NEA gathering …”
“Sombitch. That’s too bad.”
B. P. Ellery was born and raised in San Francisco’s East Bay. Ellery has worked for more than twenty years as a janitor in the public school system, which has afforded him great insight into the behavior of teachers and the consequences of educational policy. He also has assisted his parents in their flourishing feng shui business, where his specialty is correctly positioning beds and enhancing the effect of mirrors. As a result, the author will only sit in chairs facing north and thus often finds himself outside the circle of conversation—or standing more frequently than he’d like.
From a Mid-Wood: Public Education and One Superposition
iUniverse, 601 pages, (paperback) $30.95, 9781491731123
(Reviewed: June 2014)
The title of From a Mid-Wood: Public Education and One Superposition might indicate a
dry nonfiction read about teaching principles, but B. P. Ellery’s book is actually a
frequently hilarious though rambling social satire.
The beleaguered hero of this hefty novel is a Southern California English teacher named
Ryan Tether, whose surname fits: Suffering from what the boob tube calls “erectile
dysfunction,” a crisis of faith in his life's work and gnawing unease with America's role in
three wars (the author tosses in Iran for good measure), poor Ry's at the end of his rope.
But before we reach the tale’s conclusion, Ellery immerses us in the quagmire of public
education theory, the moronic ravings of a cocky U.S. President from Texas and the
follies of domestic life.
Ellery notes on the back cover that he's a school janitor who sidelines in feng shui. Let's
hope he's as good with a mop and bucket as with a written barb. Assuring the nation on
TV about the War on Terror, President “Plant” declares: “ 'We must continue down this
road or we will be sending the wrong message to people seeking freedom everywhere'.”
Comes Ellery's kicker: “An ad for odor eaters appeared immediately after . . .”
His secondary targets include corporate greed, Las Vegas, middlebrow dictator Oprah
Winfrey (dubbed “Olivia Lustrous”) and the pomp of academia: Tether's wittily contrarian
master's thesis on Shakespeare fails miserably with its humorless judges.
Ellery has a keen eye for absurdity, but 601 repetitious pages are too many. Perhaps if
he suppressed the policy wonk in him—the guy who goes on about school vouchers and
standards testing—and amplified his budding Vonnegut/Waugh/Southern, a much
shorter book would sustain the laugh-power of, say, his inspired twin finales. In one, his
paranoid president wrestles a startled high school civics teacher to the ground in the
Rose Garden; in the next, a crazed gunman goes berserk in a supermarket, shooting
bullets through the intimate regions of a smiling cardboard-cutout beauty calculated to
sell condoms. Black humor this sharp should not be diluted.
Blue Ink Review