Alex Kudera’s Fight for Your Long Day (2010) ought to be required reading for anyone who pays college tuition or taxes. The story follows the long day in the life of Cyrus Duffleman. In some of our most beloved books, we have seen versions of Duffleman before. He is the type of character who delights us on the page but who would undoubtedly make for poor company in person: a solitary man at a distance from the society that he uncomfortably inhabits but whose discomfort provides him an unfamiliar, idiosyncratic, and often fresh perspective. He is akin to Holden Caulfield trying to save children from a world full of phonies. He is also like Dostoyevsky’s mouseman, who, having just composed his “notes,” emerges from his tiny “underground” home, brimming with a strange wisdom that nobody really cares to hear and with compassion that seems out-of-place. While most of us would not want mouseman sitting in our living room, let alone babysitting our children, we give little thought that colleges and universities often fill the majority of their classrooms with Dufflemen, particularly to teach incoming freshman how to write. The author of this comical novel seems to suggest that the problem is not with his character, but with the educational system (and the post-9/11 culture of fear and terror) that made him. With a keen eye, Kudera offers an unsettling glimpse behind the curtain of higher education to reveal its dirty little secret: Cyrus Duffleman.
As an adjunct teacher, he is hired each semester, per course, and kept perennially at part-time status in order to avoid providing him benefits. There are some obvious consequences to this set-up, and some not-so-obvious ones.
Overworked, he shuffles his way through Philadelphia to teach at various schools and pick up odd jobs—thus, the novel is as much about people on streets and on trains as it is about those in the classroom.
Underpaid, he conducts his spare, insular life close to the ground, no flights, no petty frills, yet plenty of empathy for the downtrodden; he is more comfortable talking to the homeless than to anyone else. After all, during his long day, he seems homeless himself, trying to find brief moments of comfort in public places. In one of the funniest scenes, Duffleman heads towards his trusty bathroom, as if here, on his familiar toilet, he has a tiny sense of the security of home:
Although at times, he can hardly take seriously the idea that every American city is a major front in the War on Terror, as in real wars, at real fronts, Duffy’s latrine time is the most peaceful time of the day. Or so he has read in All Quiet on the Western Front; once more, a vicarious excursion through literature is all he has for evidence.
Kudera is too good a writer for simple potty jokes. Here, in the Liberty Tech men’s room—as Duffleman “squats down to enjoy the tranquility of a stall of his own”—the moment he questions if America’s current war is “real,” he becomes aware of his own inexperience; literature is his only evidence. His anxiety also follows him into a train station bathroom, where he is strangely jealous: “How Duffy envies the loud bowel movements of a happy man!”
Smart and educated, he nonetheless lacks the time and resources to develop his thoughts, to turn his “notes,” as it were, into an actual article or book; thus, his intelligence seems, on one hand, to be comprised of snippets of insight and, on the other, to be a sleight of hand, that familiar gesture in which hard-line liberalism masks itself as intelligence. His students, of course, seem to love it. The classroom discussions—which he at once orchestrates and yet barely holds together—are lively, humorous, and charged with the possibility of a riot. Early in the book, a minor riot does occur. During a debate about war and patriotism, a “white boy” in dreadlocks jubilantly burns a picture of the President, and the class “afrocentrist” “shrieks and bursts out laughing.” Yet things get even worse when a normally silent girl decides to speak and momentarily stuns the class into silence; after all, it “is not every day they hear the n-word and certainly not in the classroom.” The students erupt. The girl confusedly confesses that she is a rape victim. Poor Duffleman, meanwhile, “has more or less been cowering, unnoticed, in the front corner…with no binding contract or health benefits, his safety and security come first.”
What happens next is an unexpected scene that is a marvelous set-piece, alone worth the full-price of the book. Duffleman wants to take the proper steps to help the distraught woman. Yet, as an adjunct, he is a marginal figure on campus with no real authority (a fact best kept hidden from his students), and he is barely known or acknowledged by the full-time faculty:
Most often, a meek smile and gentle approach to interacting with the tenured is enough interaction, but even here lies the danger, for it is unclear how these job-secure professors would interpret any facial expression at all.
As alienated as a Kafka character, he fears that if he sheds any light on himself and his classroom, he won’t be hired next semester. When he takes the risk and approaches his higher-ups, what is at stake is not his student’s well-being, but Duffleman’s own competence. The reader watches a play of power between the itinerant grunt laborer and those ensconced in offices. Their interrogation is at once serious and absurd: “How’d you get on that topic?”; “What did you do to make her mad?”; “That’s tough material for undergrads, Cyrus”; “Okay. Let’s go over this again.” To salvage his ego a little, Duffleman humorously adopts the jargon of an academic to describe the girl’s breakdown in his classroom: “It seemed far beyond normative student discourse.”
A final consequence of the set-up, or perhaps what Duffleman would call the racket of higher education, is that he has little to lose. Thus, the trajectory of the novel: awaiting Duffleman at the end of his long day is the hope of sex; all along he is slouching toward one of his young female students.
Yet his is not a story of pleasure, but one of frustration and anxiety, set against the backdrop of a post-9/11 city. The turmoil in Duffleman’s classroom, the insecurity of his job, and his overall sense of unease and displacement are mirrored by the culture at large. An assassin, strangely armed with a bow and arrow, causes unrest in the streets, as media and politicians wield fear as an ideological weapon. But who is responding to whom, who is prompting who—the assassin or those in charge—remains unclear, part of the vicious cycle of domination and resistance that is built into the capitalist system, which is clearly the true target of Kudera’s ridicule. Not just politicians and the media but also the classroom, the homeless, the familiar toilet, the raped student, the one lusted after, the crowds on the street, the commuters on mass transportation, and just about everyone Duffleman encounters on his shuffling odyssey through the city, are all caught up, whether they know it or not, in the constant play of power and money. Somehow, where Duffleman relieves his bowels is governed by forces larger than himself. Kudera’s sensitivity to the deleterious effects of capitalism is fine-tuned, astute, and often funny. However, this strength may also prove to be his weakness, because it may limit his audience to people on the left. They will love every word. Conservatives and even centrists, however, will probably want a little more distance between the narrator and Duffleman, because they will find Duffleman misguided, ludicrous, and maudlin at the very moment the narrator is being most sincere. Some readers will be skeptical that Duffleman’s America is their own, that he is both its everyman and its dirty little secret.
Alex Kudera has his own blog: The Less United States of Kudera