The Good Man by Ivan Lacko
The first and foremost thing you must know about me is that I am a good man. Or, at least, I used to be. A decent, moral and loving man. A husband and father, adored by his wife and three daughters. For all the things I have done, for all the complications I have inflicted upon them, they still love me. They are with me now, right here, next to me. I can feel them. I can feel their love dripping into me through the silver neck of the infusion needle. For I’m in hospital now. And I’m a murderer, too.
It hurts me to think of what I did. I feel like a traitor, a mindless, grudging schemer, indeed a calculating criminal. Yet I never calculated anything, at least not consciously. The rage just came from nowhere and I couldn’t restrain it. I couldn’t fight it back.
When I accepted the job at the English literature department, I was young, just married, my wife expecting a child. There was nothing that could disturb my personal and intellectual equilibrium. My students loved me and I was very fond of them. I started writing a novel which I nearly finished. But then my daughter Annie was born and I had to readjust everything. I fell behind on my work, was forced to interrupt the writing of my novel and had to deal with the ridiculous, everyday problems of a parent. It was then the anger started to get hold of me. The littlest thing would get me started – the weather, the news, the distasteful cereal my wife always bought, but above all, I started hating people. Every time I stepped out of our house, I felt a flush of rage on my face, a bubbling sensation in my stomach just watching our neighbour getting in his SUV while I had to walk to the train station. My arms would throb with fury when drivers did not stop at zebra crossings to let me pass.
I finished my novel the same day my second daughter was born and I sent the manuscript to several publishers. The fury that possessed me when I received the last of the rejection slips almost cost me my job. After I read that the novel I submitted was “too long” and “too dense” to be of any interest to the general reader, I overturned the desk in my office, smashed my laptop against the wall, and hurled all chairs out of the window, one by one. The two students who suffered severe skull and upper arm fractures after being hit by the chairs sued the university. I had to apologize and pay their hospital expenses.
After this incident, I sank into depression. A thousand questions tortured me day and night. Why did I want to write books in the first place? What was it that drove me mad when I was rejected over and over? I had nothing to complain about – I had a good job, a loving family, a house in the suburbs. What else did I want? To publish novels and be successful? Did I want respect? Did I wish to be admired? Or was it really Alex Bates, my student, the troublemaker, who was the cause of all that followed?
Alex was a good student. Too good. A rich boy from a yuppie family. He was also physically revolting: he had oily, purple spots all over his face, wore thick trifocal lenses, brylcreamed his hair and wouldn’t stop sniffing. He was a typical specimen of a rich child educated “the modern way” – these kids drove Porsches, but didn’t know how to blow their nose! When he first came to my office to show me a sample of his writing (a novel!), I shuddered with disgust. I took the manuscript he handed to me as if it had been covered by slime. I refused to shake his hand – I was sure his body was all flakes and scales. As for conversation, Alex Bates either sniffed beyond reason, or talked in advertising slogans, like a billboard come alive. He would sniff and say “Keep it up!” or proclaim that “Literature is Opium of the Masses” and then sniff.
Teaching Alex Bates I often wondered what direction the progress of our language was taking. Was George Orwell right when he wrote that English was ugly and inaccurate, perpetually degenerating? I thought of all the poets who seemed to have suffered in vain, I contemplated the bards who brought the language on the edge of perfection. What was the use? I felt cheated seeing our youth use their infantile syntax, their verbless nonsense, not caring about the history and power of our language. A strange fear gripped me that there might come a time when people would start sniffing each other’s backside instead of greeting each other properly.
The particular problem with Alex Bates was not just how he spoke, but that he applied the same kind of simplistic rhetoric to his writing. His first novel had no artistic value whatsoever. It was just a collection of meaningless phrases. And I told him. And he disagreed. Disregarding my comments, he sent the manuscript to a publishing house and they published it! Alex Bates, my student, the troublemaker, the walking sniffing billboard cowpat of a writer was suddenly selling hundreds of copies of his trifling drivel, while my big novel, my magnum opus that had taken me seven years to finish, was reduced to a fading icon on the desktop of my new laptop and couldn’t hope to be printed.
I was furious. I sat down at my computer and wrote a new novel, largely inspired by Alex’s loose style and childish, limited vocabulary. It took me a week and I was walking on air when I pressed the “Send” button and emailed it to the same publisher, asking for a moderate advance. I took my family out that night for an excessive feast in a French restaurant. When we came home, my daughters shone with delight, my wife and I had the best sex in years.
I received a reply from the publisher the next day. My new laptop ended up shattered on the staircase, and I ripped apart all of my suits with my teeth. As I was chomping on the last one, a three-piece by Armani, also a Christmas gift from my wife, I broke two molars and stained our brand-new king-size bed with ruby blood and bits of oral cavity and designer thread. Seeing what I had done, my wife decided to leave me. She took our daughters with her and went to stay with her sister’s family.
That was when I started having the dreams. Not nightmares exactly, but very odd dreams that were just too vivid, too bright. And I should have seen it coming then. I should have known. At least, I should have tried to resist.
In one of these dreams I was standing on a beach. It was a beautiful night, the stars were shimmering above my head as if they wanted to break loose from the safety of their galaxies and descend onto my shoulders and then lift me up and carry me up there, into eternity, into the warmest womb of the universe. Then, from behind the persistent glow of the stars, an angel, a real, bona fide good-looking angel came down and landed spectacularly on the beach. He left no trace on the sand as he moved towards me, kissed me on the lips and handed me a notebook. It looked old, the pages were torn, and the handwriting smudged, but I could see that it was full of notes. I skimmed through the pages and realized that I had been just given an outline for a novel. I sat down on the sand and read the notes, one by one, with growing excitement. When I finished, the sun was rising and the angel had gone. Then I woke up. Miraculously enough, I remembered everything. I didn’t go back to sleep that night, or the following night. I started writing a new book. It was flawless. A great roller-coaster of a novel about a small boy – an orphan – whose foster parents are really nasty to him and so he finds his way to an extraordinary place where he learns all about magic and becomes a wizard!
Two months later, one chapter away from finishing the book, I turned on the TV. Some impatient, unashamed English tart just published her first Harry Potter book. Not only did I smash the television into pieces, I also spent two hours in the bath, in ice-cold water, shaking and wishing to return to my dream and slowly, but very slowly, strangle the pompous angel impostor to death.
The next blow came when Alex Bates published his second novel. It sold several thousand copies and his spotty face regularly appeared on television. He was the same age as my oldest daughter and I had a series of quite sickening dreams in which he tried to seduce her. In the last dream of the series, he did.
After that, I couldn’t sleep. I would just lay in my bed every night, wide awake, staring at the grey ceiling of our bedroom wishing my wife would be wheezing happily next to me. Instead, I was tortured by visions. Clear, 3D visions in brilliant colour and perfect Dolby Surround sound. And Alex Bates was in each one of them. He had even stronger lenses, now officially dated my daughter, and wouldn’t stop sniffing.
My performance in class deteriorated considerably. I was the walking ghost of a teacher. Students started laughing during my lectures and it wasn’t at the jokes I attempted. No one ever turned up for my tutorials. Colleagues only shook their heads when they passed me in the corridor – some of them didn’t even look up. One day, the head of the English department asked me to come to see him in his office. Expecting the worst, I knocked at the door and entered. My boss was sitting at his desk and right there, in front of him, was Alex Bates, grinning, his legs, arms and eyes crossed.
“Ah, there you are,” my boss said. “You know Alex Bates. He is our most popular student. Published two novels, the third is on its way. Everybody is talking about him. And he says he owes a great deal to you.”
I was speechless. My legs were shaking. I looked at Alex and saw a completely different person. His spots were gone, he was wearing a brand new suit and designer glasses that gave his eyes such an intense look that I thought he was going to attack me. Indeed, I did not see Alex Bates in front of me, I saw a beast spitting fire, flapping his ears, huffing and puffing, ready to impale me on his pointy horns.
“Alex would like to discuss several points about his new novel with you. Are you free tomorrow?” the head of the department said, habitually assuming the position of Alex Bates’s spokesman.
I watched the beast as he lowered his head and tried to hypnotize me with his rapacious gaze. I was about to say “No, thank you, I don’t do that kind of stuff anymore,” but something stopped me. Something made me nod and accept. Something that I recognized as a wonderful feeling, a feeling free of any rage, a pure emotion liberated and unrestrained, a new kind of sensitivity, a moment of illumination that brought peace to my soul. I felt it because I knew exactly what I was going to do.
When Alex Bates came to my office with the manuscript of his next novel tucked under his arm, I was well prepared. The smug grin that never left his face had no effect on me. His sniffing was louder and more frequent than ever before, but I paid no attention to it. I was ready to do what I had to do.
He handed me the manuscript and sniffed repeatedly. Then he said something, but all I heard was: “Sniff, sniff. Sniff, sniff, sniff, innit?” In Alex Bates’s language, this was how he praised himself.
I sat down behind my desk and threw a quick glance into the top drawer to check out my weapon. Alex Bates wiped his brow. He watched me, like a dog would watch its master while he is preparing its food. I savoured the moment and then produced a cold smile. Alex fidgeted in his chair. When I scanned the first two or three pages of the manuscript, I heard him say something. Was it a prolonged sniff, or did I actually hear the word “masterpiece?”
I leaned forward and placed my hand onto my weapon that still lay in the drawer. Alex Bates grinned with expectation.
“So? Sniff, sniff?” he said, his glasses moving up and down his hideous nose.
I picked up my weapon and lifted it, covering it behind my back. It felt good: a leather-bound copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, 873 pages, published in Zurich in 1939.
I stood up. I was looking straight ahead, but I could feel Alex’s gaze follow every movement I made. I let go of the manuscript and clutched Ulysses with both hands. The manuscript spiralled to the floor. I took a big step towards Alex Bates who was looking at me, puzzled.
“Do you piss on the paper?!” I said, articulating every word with exaggerated emphasis. It felt good, at last. It felt like I was about to be released from a horrible spell. “Do you shit on the page?!?!” I was yelling now and I could see terror in Alex Bates’s eyes. I raised Ulysses and with one swift spring forward brought down the heavy volume right onto the bridge of Alex’s nose. I heard a nauseating crack as his nose gave way and his glasses broke in two. I lifted the book again.
The boy shrieked with horror and tried to escape. Blood was streaming from his face. He fumbled around, in a desperate and feeble attempt to find something to defend himself with. He grabbed the huge, unabridged Webster’s Dictionary that my colleagues gave me for birthday the year before and held it in front of his face as a shield. But Ulysses went through it like a hot knife through butter. The two thousand pages went flying above Alex Bates’s gory face. He groaned with pain and I could see blood oozing from a gaping wound on his forehead. I struck again, gashing his left cheek. He crawled away, leaving a bloody trail behind. He noticed several volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary in the bottom shelf of my bookcase. He seized them and threw himself at me again, but the dictionaries were one by one knocked away by Joyce’s masterpiece. Alex Bates was a mess now, crumpled underneath the bookcase and I took another step towards him. He shuddered with terror and leaned against the bookcase, holding up his arms in appeal. Some books fell from the higher shelves and landed directly in front of him. I could see Moby Dick and Middlemarch, both fine hardback copies. Alex held them out, in a pathetic attempt to save his life. But the power of the Irish novel could not be undone. Both novels were ripped into pieces with a single strike of my hand.
Alex was shaking and I could barely hear him breathing. He pointed at my hand that was holding Ulysses firmly and victoriously in the air, and muttered, surprisingly comprehensible this time – the last time in his life. “That book… Joyce… I’ve never read it… it was… too dense… and too long…” I lifted the book one final time and finished him with a strong blow as I buried Ulysses deep in Alex Bates’s face.
I don’t remember the rest. Just the flashes and the wailing. And noise – yes, a lot of noise – like the winding-up of an old clock. And then silence. A floating sensation. Warmth and darkness. And then my wife’s hand holding mine. I tried sending her a telepathic “thank you” because I couldn’t speak. I am certain she felt it, too.
This is a story originally written under the title "The Exam" by Miroslav Rusňák and Ivan Lacko in 1992. In 2003, it was updated and publicly read by Ivan Lacko at the Cambridge Literature Seminar. This 2004 version of the story is preliminarily final.