05.19.09

The Night I Joined the Upper Class

The day John Lennon was shot, Walter Kirn squeezed out a few tears, belted out a song, and embraced the fact he felt like a working-class fraud among the Princeton swells.

My first semester at Princeton I had four roommates who resembled no one I’d ever known: Peter, a foppish piano prodigy with a mature, fine-bristled mustache, who dreamed of writing Broadway musical comedies and spent his leisure time in a robe and slippers, smoking Benson & Hedges Menthol 100s and hunching, vulture-like, over his black Steinway, plinking out show tunes about doe-eyed ingénues who’d been seduced and ruined by caddish tycoons. Jennifer, the composer’s plump heiress girlfriend, whose father owned a nightclub and often sent a limousine on weekends so that his daughter could party with celebrities, who—as I learned from a framed snapshot which sat on a dresser in her and Peter’s bedroom—included the two best-known members of the Bee Gees. Tim, the son of a New York journalist, who kept his cheeks fresh with Oil of Olay and treated the composer and the heiress as surrogate parents, addressing them in baby talk and asking them to tuck him in at night, which they did, complete with fairytales. And Joshua, an earnest Long Island Quaker kid with a close-trimmed, pious-seeming red beard, who played guitar and protested apartheid, which I pretended to be concerned about, too, although I wasn’t certain what it was. The SATs hadn’t required such trivial knowledge.

Read Walter Kirn, author of Lost in the Meritocracy, on his college breakdown, colliding with clubby rich kids, and the book that brought all the horror rushing back.

One night a report came over the radio that John Lennon, Joshua’s hero, had been assassinated. We were lying on our bunks in the small bedroom that we shared at the far end of the suite, around the corner from a dank bathroom which smelled of wet feet and backed-up drains. My other three roommates slept closer to the common room, a bright south-facing sitting area neutrally furnished with nicked-up chairs and tables and a tough old institutional sofa whose denim-covered cushions hid a thick layer of pennies, ash, and paper clips. The suite was located in Wilson College, the ugliest cluster of buildings on the campus and the home to an inordinate number of glum-looking black and Jewish kids. That I, an unconnected transfer student, had ended up in Wilson was not surprising, but my Manhattan roommates seemed offended at having been assigned such modest quarters.

lost-in-meritocracy-book-cover
Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. By Walter Kirn. 224 pages. Doubleday. $24.95. ()

“Lennon. Dead,” said the radio. “Imagine.”

The first report, and the many that followed it, plunged Joshua into fits of heaving grief. “They finally did it,” he moaned. “They finally got him.” Lennon’s untimely demise meant little to me thanks to my heavy-metal upbringing (I hadn’t even known, before that night, that he’d gone on writing and recording after he left the Beatles), but I could tell from Joshua’s stricken eyes that something momentous had occurred, a catastrophe which, in the words of one announcer, would “devastate an entire generation,” and I wanted in on the cosmopolitan trauma. I saw the event as a chance to put behind me my provincial, mass-market sensibilities and join the ranks of the discerning elect.

“‘Let’s sing something. ‘Working Class Hero,’” I said to Joshua, squeezing a few thin tears through my dry ducts. I hadn’t heard of the song before that night but the radio people were making fancy claims for it, calling it one of Lennon’s most “personal statements” and an “enduring critique of fame itself.” “I’d rather play another one. It’s for the young man, the poor killer,” said Quaker Joshua. He settled his shaky fingers on the guitar strings, strummed a chord, fell silent, sighed, then rallied.

All the lonely people,” he began.

The choice was a magical piece of luck for me. Afterward, spent, having sung with my whole rib cage and fully emoted on every memorized word, I felt the urge to cry for real—from gratitude. Thanks to my gloomy second-grade music teacher, I’d managed to respond convincingly, in the company of a well-credentialed witness, to a historic cultural tragedy that would be revisited for decades. My genuine tears flowed along with my false tears, and as they did the distinction between them blurred. I wasn’t ashamed of this. My fraudulence, I was coming to understand, was in a way the truest thing about me. It represented ambition, longing, need. It sprung from the deepest chambers of my soul.

My fraudulence, I was coming to understand, was in a way the truest thing about me.

“Somehow it’s going to turn out OK,” said Joshua.

“Somehow we’re going to come through this.”

“Let’s hope,” I said.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Excerpted from Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever by Walter Kirn ©2009. With permission from the publisher, Doubleday.

Walter Kirn is a regular reviewer for The New York Times Book Review, and his work appears in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Time, New York, GQ and Esquire. He is the author of six previous works of fiction: My Hard Bargain: Stories, She Needed Me, Thumbsucker, Up in the Air, Mission to America and The Unbinding. Kirn is a graduate of Princeton University and attended Oxford on a scholarship from the Keasbey Foundation. He lives in Livingston, Montana.