For the past ten years, John Griswold has been publishing essays in numerous venues,
including McSweeney’s, Ninth Letter, and Inside Higher Education.
Pirates You Don’t
Know represents thirty-four of Griswold’s current achievements. It’s an eclectic
collection, ranging from his philosophical reflections on life as an adjunct professor,
life as an observer of students, life as a searcher attempting to understand himself
in relationship to a political system that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so scary
and scattered and out of touch with its electorate. Griswold’s essays cruise through
a stunning array of topics, including life as a father and husband, life as a son
(often a baffled one), life as a writer and a teacher of writing and literature,
life as a frogman in the Army. Many of the essays are very short, at times only
two or three pages. One might call them “flash essays.”
In “The Pirate’s Waltz,” Griswold plays with a metaphor that turns
itself into a memoir mostly about his mother. “The box” is the metaphor.
We’re all boxed in, whether you’re a mother or father, a son, a daughter,
a sibling, a teacher, writer, loser, welfare statistic, parasite, or pirate. We’re
all pirates, actually, descending from the first pirate: Eve who, as Griswold
puts it “...turned to piracy under a perfect reign and headed for the new
world, a wormy apple on her ensign.” This leads eventually to a comparison
to his mother as a pirate. She had “a sexy, sturdy box” in which she
stored part of her history. The son opens the box, wherein he finds “...a
crib toy, still jangling eerily out of tune...letters, a divorce decree, a Dear
Abby clipping about estranged children, scouting streamers, scraps of paper on which
she jotted suspicious license plate numbers and comments that strangers made about
her in the aisles of Walmart.”
Griswold rewinds to his bewildering childhood, his mother’s capricious behavior
(the child trying to make sense of it), and then flies forward again to pick up
the moment when he learned from his sister that their mother was on her deathbed.
So riveting is “The Pirate’s Waltz” that this reviewer found himself
wanting Griswold to continue in the same vein and let the entire book be a memoir.
In a unique way, he does precisely that. One might call the rest of the book a semi-memoir
and not be far off the mark.
“Unemployed, in Greenland” finds the subplot moving into the rattled
world of those struggling appendages (mostly unwanted, but necessary) populating
American colleges border to border, coast to coast. We’re talking about that
overworked, grossly underpaid, shamefully spurned pack of neurotics labeled adjunct:
“...something added to but not essentially a part of the thing.” Griswold
tells us that he “taught more than tenured professors but was paid half, conditions
similar to...those of most contingent faculty in America who, along with grad students
now teach 75 percent of the classes on college campuses for low pay, few benefits,
and no job security.” After listing the details of the adjunct situation,
the essay becomes a transfixing meditation on coincidence and luck. “Consider
the Beatles.” What if Paul and John had never met? Or what if John had been
drunk that day and sadistic? Or what if—well, the possibilities appear endless.
Consider one’s own life: What if?
Griswold links his own what-if’s to the coincidences and luck that brought
him and his wife and two sons out of near poverty to a tenure track position at
a Gulf Coast university. He says he is squatting in high cotton now: “But
I’m constantly reminded of how many adjuncts are genuinely among the working
poor in America, one of the shames of high ed.” As a fifteen-year veteran
of the adjunct trenches myself, I can only say amen and consider the coincidence
and luck that raised me from dispensable lackey to a university professorship. Countless
thousands of other hopefuls have not been so fortunate. The subject of the adjunct
comes up here and there throughout the collection. Anyone in such a precarious position
would do well to read about the ubiquity of pirates dominating education in this
best of all possible worlds.
Eyes open, especially when the kings of academia spout lofty ideals.
The essays roll on and give us more of Griswold’s personal history, more dealings
with his mother, once an extremely ambitious beauty, but decades later a grumbling,
senile crone. Ah, those wrinkles, the curse of gravity and old age.
Griswold grows up, leaves home, joins the Army, is trained as an underwater diver
and shipped to Panama, Korea, Germany. Upon leaving the service, he goes to college,
ultimately becomes a professor many, many years later. What grit, one says. Much
to be admired, yes.
Digressions appear often throughout the book: anatomizing students, teachers,
the craft of writing, asides filled with anecdotes about famous writers, such as
Gertrude Stein (“I began to be sure...that if I could only go on on long enough...I
could finally describe...every kind of human being that ever was...or would be.”)
or Mark Twain’s miraculous creation of Huckleberry Finn’s voice; “Twain’s
great gift was to find a way to reconcile knowledge and innocence, what Picasso
meant when he said, ‘It takes a lifetime to become young.’”
There are marriage problems, definitions of desire and geedunk and geegaws, tenacity,
hardheads, languor, crocodiles, an encomium glorifying the Virginia Tech Professor
Liviu Librescue, the Holocaust survivor who held his classroom door shut long enough
for students to jump from the second-story windows to safety.
“I suspect that events happened so fast that his power to hold back Death
as long as he did, before being killed, came from a deep and primitive feeling:
These are my kids, you son of a bitch.
“What a beautiful old crocodile.”
Griswold’s mesmeric collection is a revelation. In spite of growing up poor
and mostly neglected and with little encouragement (circumstances that would cripple
many of us), he took his surroundings and the people populating his world and turned
all of it and them into a book that is, in its own way, a poetic and generous rendering
of existence as he found it, creating in the process a work that is sui generis,
uniquely original in its style and the power of its presentation. Plainly put, Pirates
You Don’t Know is a finely tuned equivalent of literary gold.
—Previously published in South Carolina Review (Volume 47, Number 1,
Bio: Duff Brenna