September 2006

Natalie Moore

fiction

The Catastrophist by Lawrence Douglas

Daniel Wellington is his own worse enemy. Life should be good for the art professor; he is the latest wunderkind at an elite New England college. He has a new book out, media outlets profile him and he is invited to serve on prestigious panels. Basically, he is an academic rock star while some of his colleagues turn a slight shade of green at his success.

The Catastrophist, by first-time novelist Lawrence Douglas, introduces readers to an intelligent, witty Daniel. When his wife R. announces that she is pregnant, his world begins to unravel like a cat playing in yarn.

Daniel is dubbed a “futurephobe.” He lies about being the son of Holocaust survivors. His libido rises right along with his star, but he can’t even muster the wherewithal to engage in the physicality of an affair. The reader wonders why Daniel won’t just plop on some therapist’s couch.

His fears are not rooted in anything seemingly logical. Daniel’s self-sabotage surfaces from the trepidation of the unknown, and he worries about whether he’ll be a terrible parent. Everything for Daniel, a bloody nail biter who once hugged a tree to thwart a panic attack, is a glass-half-empty paradigm. He has no control of that sinking feeling in the stomach.

Part of Daniel is relieved when R. miscarries, yet guilt washes over him. During dessert he prods his wife about adopting a Chinese baby. R. is exasperated and asks why he brings up a baby; after all, the tree hugging episode occurred after she announced her pregnancy. Daniel knows she’s right.

“The next day, in my office, I wondered why I had brought up the topic. Was I simply behaving like a child who refuses to board the roller coaster, then cries the whole way home for missing the best ride? Or was I doing it for R. -- reminding her that nothing was irrevocable? Whatever my motive, I certainly had meant no harm, and I was disturbed by our failure to talk through the issue,” Daniel thinks. Daniel never means any harm.

What keeps The Catastrophist engaging is its sheer humor in this first-person journey. Academic satire is familiar territory in literature. Just last year author Zadie Smith poked fun of a similar New England college in On Beauty. Both Smith and Douglas have used cocktail parties to show the follies and quirks of professors. Douglas often winks at the reader. 

When Daniel makes tenure, the socially awkward guests at his party include a local playwright who offers to “bugger” his host in the barn. Nearby, some political science colleagues say not to worry about the new U.S. president because all he’ll do is play golf, trim the estate tax and be gone in four years.

The book is also about the inside baseball of marriage. Daniel and R. often needle each other without the histrionics. This is no sitcom couple with oddball antics. Daniel laments how adventurous the two were early in the marriage while bellyaching about the lack of current tenderness and humor from R. He can’t escape being an academic and analyzes the reason for adultery, taking cues from a philosopher.

Daniel's solution? He gives both a would-be lover and R. a bottle of Joop! perfume.

R. becomes pregnant again and Daniel temporarily puts his "futurephobia" in check. But his lies catch up with him and irrational behavior, such as sending a vulgar e-mail that includes lunchmeat and a penis to a former student, make him vulnerable. Even his dean tells Daniel that it’s a little early for a midlife crisis.

Beneath the satire and dark comedy are lessons to contemplate: how does one cope with success and keep the fire in the marriage? These are even harder questions to answer when the problems do not appear in plain view.

The Catastrophist by Lawrence Douglas
Other Press
ISBN: 1590512197
276 Pages