All That Joy Can Give
H.J. Sage
Chapter 1

The Cynic

Jack walked to the front of the room and didn’t look at the students. He scanned the roster in front of him on the desk. Thirty seven students—most of them probably English majors. It was the second week of classes for his junior level course, Studies in Contemporary American Literature, English 311. He called the names, and the students answered. One student in the back of the room raised her hand. He looked at her. “You’re not on the roster, I guess,” and she nodded her head yes. “Okay, see me after class.” He walked to the back of the room and handed her a syllabus.

Jack stood in front of the class not saying anything for several minutes. The students, mostly juniors, he assumed, were relaxed, chatting, waiting for him to begin. He was sitting on the front of his desk looking down at a piece of paper he was holding in his hand. He didn’t say anything for a long time, and the students finally began to quiet down. They looked at him expectantly. “I’d like to read a poem,” he said. “It has never been published—this copy was given to me by a friend of mine.”

He began to read:

“The yellow sky was filled with terror,
Exploding puffs of death filled the air.
Inside our tin coffin we prayed to the goddess of death,
But she was deaf.
Go pray to your god of war, she told us,
For it is he who brings you pain.”

Jack put the poem down on his desk, walked to the window and looked out. The students grew silent. He turned and faced the class from the side of the room. “Anyone want to guess when that was written?”

“During wartime?” one student asked.

“Any history majors in here?” he asked.

“It reminds me of that poem about the gunner in the bomber,” a female student said.

“Very good, Joyce,” Jack said. “That was The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell. This one was written probably in 1943 or 1944 by a bombardier on a B-17. He survived the war, but his brother didn’t. He was killed during a kamikaze attack off of Okinawa in 1945.”

“You said a friend of yours gave it to you, Professor?”

“That’s right, Joyce,” he said.

Joyce smiled. “Can you tell us who she is?” she asked. Joyce had been in Jack’s English 101 class.

“Was,” he said. Joyce looked at him questioningly, and the rest of the students stirred in their chairs.

“How well did you know her?” a male student asked.

“Too well,” he said. He was still standing at the side of the room. He put his hands in his pockets walked back to the front and sat down on the front of his desk. “I don’t have much to say today,” he said. “What I would like to ask you to do is take out any one of the books you have with you—I don’t care what kind of book it is. Maybe that paperback you have in your book bag with all the sex scenes in it, I don’t care. Just somebody, anybody, open a book and read something you like. Take your time, find something that appeals to you and just read it to us, okay? As the man said, it’s times like these that try men’s souls.”

Students began to shuffle their book bags and thumb through the texts on their desks. He waited patiently, a hint of a smile on his face. The students relaxed; students who had been in one of his classes before—like Joyce—knew how animated he usually was in the classroom, and they could sense his pain. A woman in the back of the room raised her hand, and he nodded.

“This is a novel I’ve been reading,” she said. “I know it’s not literature or anything, but I like it. I hope that’s okay?” She looked at Jack questioningly.

He smiled at her. “If you like it, it’s literature,” he said. “Just go ahead and read.”

Several of the other students turned and looked at her, and they smiled. The paperback novel was a bestseller, and most of them knew that it was a bestseller because of the erotic scenes in it. “I’m not going to read any of the really, you know, sexy stuff,” she said. “But I like the part where the guy is trying to tell her why he loves her.”

Jack nodded and the young woman began to read. The prose was pedestrian, he thought, as she read the passage. He might have said that, but he didn’t. The text the girl read was honest and heartfelt, and despite the awkwardness of the language, the feelings came through. The young woman read perhaps two or three pages, and then she looked up.

Jack smiled and looked around the room. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” he said. Then, “Why are you all here?” No one volunteered an answer, so he looked around the room. “I’m serious, I’d like some of you or all of you to tell me why you’re here. What are you doing here? Why are you sitting in this classroom instead of being out somewhere making love, or robbing a bank?”

There was some nervous laughter in the room. The tone of Jack’s voice didn’t convey a sense of inquiry; it was a challenge.

A male student in the front row raised his hand, and Jack nodded. “I’m here to learn more about literature,” the young man said.

“Why?” His tone of voice bordered on harsh, and the young man didn’t answer. He looked around the room. “Anyone else?”

A woman in the middle of the room raised her hand, and he nodded again. “I’m majoring in English, and this is a course I need.”

Jack nodded his head. “Who’s taking this course who isn’t an English major?” he asked. Three hands went up. He pointed at the first student and said, “Major?”

“Psychology,” said the first student, a woman. He nodded at the second woman. “Sociology.” He looked at the third. “Mathematics,” said the male student.

“Any connections between literature and mathematics?” he said.

“I don’t know, but I’d like to find out,” said the student.

“Well, lots of luck with that,” Jack said, and there was more nervous laughter.

“Why do you think we’re here, Professor McMahon?” said a woman in the second row.

“I have no bloody idea,” said Jack. “I don’t even know why I’m here; how the hell should I know why you’re here?” The class was silent. Then he said, “I need another reader.” No one volunteered. “Right now,” he said. Nothing. He looked at the math student.

“How about it, math major? Why don’t you read something?”

“All I have with me is my math book,” said the student.

“That’ll work,” said Jack. The student opened his book to the front and started reading a description of the mathematical principles that were covered in the text he was holding. The prose was fine, but the descriptions of the mathematics were obviously over the heads of most of the people in the room, including Jack. The student read for a few minutes, and then Jack held up his hand. “That’s good,” he said, “at least the author is telling you exactly what the book is about. You understand it, of course.”

“Sure,” said the student.

“Does anybody else?” No hands went up. “No more math majors, I guess.”

Jack picked up the book on his desk, Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara. It was the first book he had assigned for the course in modern American literature. “You won’t find anything by this guy in any American literature textbook anywhere,” he said. “You probably won’t find any other course in American literature where John O’Hara is taught,” he said.

“Then why are we reading him?” a student asked.

“How many of you have ever read The New Yorker magazine?” he asked. About a third of the hands went up. He nodded. “It’s generally regarded as one of the best edited magazines in print. It’s a highly regarded magazine in most literary circles, and John O’Hara had more short stories published in The New Yorker than any other American author.” The students were looking at him, curious. “He also wrote a number of novels that were converted into movies, maybe more than any other American novelist.”

“What were they?” a student asked.

Ten North Frederick, A Rage to Live, Pal Joey, From the Terrace, and Butterfield 8. There may have been another, but I think that’s all. Has anyone seen any of them?”

“I’ve heard of Butterfield 8,” said a male student.

“What do you remember about it?”

“Elizabeth Taylor was in it, I think. She was pretty hot.”

“She was. And she won an Oscar for that role as a call girl.” He paused for a moment. “Some people think O’Hara was a pretty good writer.”

“Then how come he’s not taught in any English classes?” another student asked.

“That’s a good question,” said Jack. “He never went to college, for one thing, and he had an attitude about that, and I guess he had a pretty prickly personality. Some might say he was an asshole.” A few students chuckled. “He was an alcoholic, but he quit drinking, and apparently his personality got worse after he quit. He wrote a column in a New York newspaper that made a lot of people angry. So I guess the bottom line on John O’Hara is that whether he was a great writer or not, because of his lousy personality, he’s been rejected by the literary establishment.” He looked around the room. “What do you think about that?”

“I think it sucks,” said one male student.

“But is his writing any good?” a female student asked.

Jack smiled. “How the hell should I know—and why would you care what I think anyway?”

“You’re the teacher.”

He shrugged; he didn’t answer for a moment. “That’s up to you to decide. I’m guessing most of you have read Scott Fitzgerald, maybe Hemingway, or Thomas Wolfe. I want you to read Appointment in Samarra and tell me whether you think it belongs in the same category with those guys.”

“Where does the title come from?” another student asked.

Jack nodded. “There’s an old legend about a rich man, a merchant in a city somewhere in the Middle East, Baghdad, perhaps, who sent his servant to the market, and the servant came home frightened and said that death had threatened him in the marketplace. The merchant gave his servant some money and told him to take his fastest horse and flee to Samarra. Then he went to the marketplace and asked death why she had threatened his servant. Death tells him that she did not threaten the servant at all. It was just a gesture of surprise at seeing him in the marketplace, because she had an appointment with him that night in Samarra. O’Hara said that everybody hated the title, but he liked it.”

“So what does it mean?” asked a female student.

“Anyone?” He looked around.

“If death has your number, you’re screwed,” said a male student.

“You seem kind of preoccupied with death today,” said another female student.

Jack nodded. “I’m dying,” he said.

The students shifted in their chairs uncomfortably. “Are you ill?” said the female student.

“No,” he said, “Just dying. I’m dying, you’re dying, everybody’s dying. It’s something we all have to look forward to, isn’t it?” He looked around the room. “I need another reader,” he said, and he pointed to a woman in the third row who had raised her hand. She opened a book and started to read.


Jack walked through the department office on his way back to his own office following the class. He had made a stop in the library; his class had ended perhaps half an hour before. “The dean wants to see you,” said Beverly Wilson, a secretary.

Dean Doris Fraser looked up from her desk as Jack walked into her office. “You wanted to see me, Doris?”

“Yeah, Jack, what the hell were you doing in class today?”


“Two of your students came in to see me a few minutes ago, and they were all pissed off.”

“What about?”

“Whatever it was that you were doing in your lit class. They said you sounded like you were a little crazy, or screwed up, or something.”

“I just told them they were all going to die,” he said.

“What?” Doris snapped. “What the hell was that all about?”

Jack smiled. “You’re acting like I was telling them something they didn’t already know.”

“Jesus Christ, Jack, what the hell is going on with you? I’ve heard some talk around that you’re acting kind of weird. It started last semester.”

“Shit, Doris, I’ve been doing this for too long. Maybe I never should have been doing it at all. Maybe I should have stayed in the Army.”

She looked at him curiously for a moment and then started shaking her head. “Are we back to that again?”

Jack took a deep breath. “It comes back from time to time.”

Doris nodded. “I get it.” She paused and then said, “Do you need to see somebody? Maybe a doctor?”

“I’m fine, Doris,” he said very evenly. He stared at her. “Anything else?”

“Jack, I don’t know what the hell is going on with you, but don’t scare your students anymore, okay?”

Jack nodded, started to say something, thought better of it, smiled, turned and left.

Sage Books Home | Updated April 20, 2021