Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mr. Talk's Complaint

I hate condemning things I don't understand, although I have written a few posts about Sarah Palin. So when I blogged about Bronx teacher Greg Van Voorhis, who had his students read a story from Playboy and ended up in the rubber room for his trouble, I decided I had to read the story for myself. It's called Guts and was written by Chuck Palahniuk. You can read it for yourself here, although I'd advise against settling down with a snack before you read it.

The Post article mentioned that the story contained a bit about a boy masturbating with a carrot up his anus, and the good news is that the Post got something right for a change. The bad news is that the carrot is by no means the worst part. As the story unfolds, we meet another boy who was hospitalized for masturbating--he put a thin rod of wax in his urethra and it got sucked into his bladder. Finally, the narrator relates his own tale of auto-erotic doom. It seems he enjoyed sitting on the drain of his parents' pool while jerking off, and it sucked his guts out of his body. His decision on whether and how to extract himself is pretty graphic and nauseating.

If this all sounds pretty disturbing, it is. I read some of the comments by readers of the story on the author's blog, and they all seem to think this was an shining example of narrative description. I think they miss the point. In my view, the author meant this as a humorous piece in the tradition of Philip Roth in Portnoy's Complaint. If I'm right, then Chuck Palahniuk has a huge problem--namely, that Roth did it far better. Roth's hilarious description of Alexander Portnoy's masturbatory obsession is an example of literary greatness. Palahniuk just isn't as funny.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Palahniuk meant for Guts to be what it appears to be on the surface--a gross, raw piece of shock lit. There's something to be said for that interpretation. After reading the story, I was immediately reminded of the movie The Aristocrats, in which a group of comedians try to top each other in telling the most rambling, foul, disgusting version of the same joke. If that was Palahniuk's intention, he succeeded, but it's hardly literature.

All of this begs the question of whether Van Voorhis should have read this story with his class. In the end, I'd have to say no. I'm a great fan of Philip Roth, but I'd never recommend teaching Portnoy to high school kids. And Palahniuk is more graphic without the literary power of Roth.

As to whether Mr. Van Voorhis should be fired, I'd again say no. In my opinion, he showed a lack of judgment, but in no way was the story pornographic (in the sense of appealing to prurient interest). I can understand how a teacher, enamored of an author, would want to share that interest, but this was just a little too much.

Ironically, Guts is basically a tale about that one thing everyone does that they end up regretting for the rest of their lives. We all have one, or two, or three. I have a feeling that sharing this story with his students may be something that Mr. Van Voorhis will end up regretting for a while. I hope the DOE doesn't disembowel him for it.


Chaz said...

Mr. Talk:

With parent complaints and the media involved, you can be certain the DOE will charge him under 3020-a. Especially, since the Principal washed his hands of it.

As for the students protesting? The DOE does not care about that. Remember the social studies teacher that was falsely accused of kissing and propositioning a student at Brooklyn Tech in 2005? The entire school shut down as the students protested his removal. Believe it or not he is still in the "rubber room" in Brooklyn. I kid you not.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your veracity in explaining to the public that you, too, needed to examine the reading yourself. As an educator, I know that I have had my faux pas on several occasions. Who hasn't had a moment of meaculpe!? Mr. Van Voorhis will definitely learn from this mistake. But, I do agree with you that he should not be fired.

Once again thank you for your insight of this situation

Mr. Talk said...

Chaz, I have no doubt you are correct. Van Voorhis stuck his foot in it and the DOE isn't likely to haul him out of the muck. The UFT will probably throw him an anchor because they'd rather avoid a discussion of tenure.

Anon--everyone has screwed up at one point. Unfortunately not everyone does it as publicly as Van Voorhis has, These days, one mistake is all it takes to find yourself in the rubber room for years.

Anonymous said...

Usage: "begs the question" doesn't apply here. You mean, "raises the question."

Mr. Talk said...

Anon: In a discussion of formal logic, you'd be correct. However, this is a matter of common usage, not formal logic.

Which begs the question of why, when something important is being discussed, you respond like a jackass?