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RICHARD EDER

The View From Middle Age : A Midwestern boy encounters the great world of literature, the little world of academiaand the mystifying pain of growing older : NOVEMBERFEST By Theodore Weesner (Alfred A. Knopf: $24; 386 pp.)

November 13, 1994|RICHARD EDER

Astride the parabola of middle age, where the curve tilts forward and almost instantly plunges, Glen Cady walks on a cold Atlantic beach with Alice, his 4-year-old daughter. In his mid-50s, he is only an assistant professor of German, will not get tenure, will have to leave and has virtually no prospects of another position. His marriage to a much younger woman is coming apart. He is afflicted by the memory of an old love, and by a ghostly revenant in the fey person of a student who is on the point of seducing him.

All these things are told us virtually in the first page of "Novemberfest," but Theodore Weesner doesn't simply tell them. Adding one more element, one more distress--as a chemist introduces a droplet of material to precipitate a solution--he releases the first active storm-sign in Cady's lowering anguish. Alice is the droplet. Normally sparky and responsive, she is oddly languid. Instead of running ahead she hangs back.

"Alice's fingers are like stubby, moist pencils and keep trying to return to his own," Weesner writes. She trudges beside Cady, reluctantly. Finally he puts her on his shoulders. "She has the weight of an empty gym bag" and then, as he carries her to the car, "the empty gym bag seems to be filling with sand."

Only a parent can pick up those first signals from the onset of a child's sickness: not quite consciously, but as an ache in the parental bones and a lead weight on the spirit. If I mark this minor passage--Alice is indeed ill, will go to the hospital for a night and will quickly recover--it is to mark something of the light and intensity that Weesner can focus on a small event, and his use of it to show the simultaneity of our emotions.

We are strong at a funeral, and a few spilled drops of coffee afterward make us break down. Cady, the stoic and vulnerably romantic protagonist of this finely drawn novel, does not break down, but Alice's beach-droop breaks us into the darks and lights of his story.

It is a story that Weesner tells with what might be called haunted realism. He approaches the task of presenting a familiar enough event, emotion or setting with buoyant discovery, as if it had never been attempted before. There are some rather old-fashioned fictional qualities to "Novemberfest," such as the very complete and explicit account of just where the protagonist stands at each moment. How refreshing it is, though, to be on an author's beach, instead of inside his head; especially when he is able to make it and so many other scenes suggest the music of a life as well as its text.

In alternating sections, "Novemberfest" sets the story of Cady's middle-age crisis against the time, nearly 35 years earlier, when he was an Army recruit in Germany and had a brief, consuming and transforming affair with Hedy, a married German woman. Its dazzlement opened the 20-year-old up; through the opening entered a passion for a European culture and civilization he had never dreamed of.

From his pre-Army Midwestern blue-collar youth, with a factory job in prospect, he painfully worked his way after the Army through a community college and then, with scholarships, up through a doctorate in modern German literature and a teaching position. He was late getting there and now, in the late 1980s, with the job market tight, with a brilliant teaching record but skimpy publication and with middle-aged white males at no premium whatsoever, he is at the end of the line.

*

Cady's effort to fight for his job makes a splendid account of present-day academic politics. Weesner treats his hero's ordeal with compassion but with a certain balancing irony as well. There is a villain or two, but mostly the university authorities get a touch of sympathy. They are under constraints and have to follow the tenure rules; and Cady is decidedly an odd fish.

He puts his case to a dean: His publication record is no worse than that of several tenured professors, he has done brilliant translations, he is acknowledged as a superb teacher, he had been assured that he was on tenure track, he cannot get another job and finally . . . "I saw Thomas Mann once. On a street in Stuttgart."

It is a splendid, revealing moment (all the more because the dean, a political scientist, politely inquires: "You do mean the author?"). Only apparently is it an irrelevancy, though Cady is embarrassed to have said it. In fact it defines him. He is passionately, hopelessly in love with German literature--as he was once with Hedy, his German love--and, anachronistically, he believes in an academic world where such a passion was the reason you became a professor.

"Novemberfest," in fact, is the story of an aging romantic in a chilly modern world. His grief, frustration and anger are real, but Weesner makes him joyful, as well, occasionally triumphant--particularly at the end, where the fall of the Berlin Wall and Cady's final, improbable success are juxtaposed, as if to proclaim the possibilities of the impossible--and once in a while, comical.

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