Beast Fiction: The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Webster College president and former student radical Naomi Roth is no stranger to progressive protests—but do the kids agitating on her campus even know what they’re fighting for?

Photo Illustration by Alex Brook Lynn/The Daily Beast

A few days later, news that a small delegation from Yale had joined the regulars at the Stump reached Dean Stacek, who seemed to take great pleasure in passing this nugget upstairs to Naomi’s office. Mrs. Bradford presented his communiqué toward the end of the day, along with the message (actually, messages) from a Boston Globe reporter who wanted a comment on “the unrest at Webster” for a report she was preparing, but Naomi was already on the phone getting an earful from the father of Chava Friedberg. He’d begun phoning almost daily from San Francisco, threatening and irate, wanting to know why nothing was being done about his daughter and the others, “sleeping rough” in the mud. (There was significant mud, it was true; November had been mild, and rainy.) It was now more than two months into the “action” and no one from the protest seemed interested in actually communicating with her. Hannah, too, no longer seemed to be interested in communicating with her. Hannah had canceled their Sunday night dinner, first once, then again.

And this, to be brutally honest, was what finally got her out there, despite her selfless offer to Deans Martell and Stacek.

Naomi went to the Stump on the second Sunday night, breaking—at a single blow—every one of their agreed-upon barriers, looking for her daughter, whom she did not find. What she did find were twenty or so kids around a battery-powered heater, a couple drinking beers, others blowing on cups of coffee. They all looked relatively clean, at least from the boots up. (From the boots down they were uniformly filthy.) They were huddling— perhaps for warmth, perhaps for the reasons young people have always huddled—some with blankets thrown over their shoulders, some with sleeping bags unfurled around them, but it was all highly civilized. She heard murmuring and soft laughter. There was a spirit of accord. It might have been a tailgate party that continued on after the big game, winding down to a campfire, everyone reluctant to go home.

“Hello,” said Naomi.

No one appeared overly surprised.

“Oh, hi,” said a girl with a knotted red scarf. Naomi squinted but did not recognize her. “It’s President Roth,” she announced, not without a detectable edge of sarcasm.

“Hi, President Roth,” said a boy who shared the red-scarf-girl’s unzipped sleeping bag. Naomi squinted at that, too. Was that Naomi’s own unzipped sleeping bag? It certainly looked like it.

“Oh. Yeah,” someone else said. “I thought I recognized you.”

Naomi had her winter hat on. It had flaps down the sides. But she hadn’t been trying to hide.

A few others looked up with interest.

“Everyone warm enough?” Naomi asked, helplessly maternal.

“We’re okay,” said the girl who’d recognized her. “The last couple of nights have been the worst, but we’re sticking close together.”

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Naomi nodded, even as her internal alarm began to rise. “Anyone seen Hannah? Hannah Roth?”

No one spoke right away, but then the boy in the sleeping bag said, “She had a paper, I think. She went back to her room to work on it.” He had a slight accent. Very slight, very not obvious as to its origin, but definitely there. He was wearing a brown hoodie, heavy dark boots, no coat at all. He’d have to be freezing, sleeping bag or no. Why didn’t he have a coat? He was skinny, too. “She might stay over there, she said,” said the boy. “Of course, this is fine.”

Well, thank you, Naomi thought. And you are?

“Hi, Professor Roth!” said a girl. “It’s Elise?”

Elise. Basketball player from somewhere in the South. Georgia? She had been in Naomi’s freshman seminar last spring. Naomi still taught one freshman seminar a year, usually some variation on second-wave feminism. Last year it had been mainly Friedan and de Beauvoir. “Hey, Elise. C’mere.”

And Elise came and was hugged. She smelled . . . not bad, but just a tiny bit sharp.

“How long have you been camping out?” she asked Elise.

“Um . . . ? Couple weeks? I’m going to classes, though.”

Naomi frowned at this. I should hope so, she wanted to say. But didn’t.

“What about food?”

“Thatcher,” the girl beside the boy in (probably) Naomi’s sleeping bag said, meaning the dining hall, with a shrug. It was close enough to the Billings Lawn that students often took their food outside to eat on the grass. Though not in November.

“Sometimes people bring us pizzas,” Elise added.

“Sometimes we get pizzas delivered!” someone said, and there were a few sputters of laughter.

Naomi, at this, reached some kind of internal barrier. Yes, there was camaraderie in foxholes. Yes, there was humor (usually black) on the barricades, but only in proportion to the deadly serious matter at hand. Civil rights. Free speech. Women’s liberation. Vietnam. Reproductive rights. Gay liberation. Animal rights. Let the refuseniks go. Euthanasia. Gun control. And this was supposedly about one guy not getting tenure? What was going on here?

“What is going on here?” she heard herself say, but so softly that almost immediately she said it again, and louder, to hear it more clearly. “Can someone explain to me what is going on here?”

“This is a peaceful protest,” said a girl in a Sojourner Truth House sweatshirt.

“I don’t doubt it,” Naomi said tersely. “And I commend you for that. And I respect your right to protest, believe me. But what I don’t understand is, why haven’t you come in to talk to me?”

No one, immediately, spoke. And then, there was something: not so much a noise as a sudden vacuum of noise, and all of the non-noise came from one place, or, more accurately, one person, and that one person was the boy, of course, who was so slight that she had not yet really managed to have any sense of him at all. Light? Dark? Not just on the short side but, actually, almost . . . well, stunted was the word that came to her. He was stunted, and yet the power that came from him, that thing that made her look at him and not anyone else, though the others were, almost uniformly, taller and broader, more physically imposing in every way that someone can be. She took an involuntary step in his direction and asked his name.

“My name is Omar,” he said. He didn’t hold out his hand. He was holding the sleeping bag at his shoulder and had his other arm around the girl, with the sleeping bag draped over them both. The girl was a foot taller than he was, and had a mass of rippled hair. Hair like Naomi’s hair—the sort of hair she had always thought of as “Ashkenazi deluxe.” It was a private joke with herself; who else would find it amusing?

“I’m Chava,” she said.

“Hello,” Naomi said, registering the daughter of her highly displeased caller from San Francisco. But she didn’t take her eyes off the boy. Omar. “I take it that’s my sleeping bag,” she said, feeling instantly ashamed, though she hadn’t meant it unkindly. She’d been glad to lend it. She’d have lent it to any of them, let alone a friend of Hannah’s.

“It is. And thank you,” he said. “I don’t have a sleeping bag.”

She could not even see his face, really. The brown hoodie he wore came down over his forehead. Dark hair over his cheeks. Very dark eyebrows. Not African-American, she was sure. But not Caucasian either.

“Where are you from?” she asked him, without even thinking. She felt like the two of them were weirdly alone amid all these extraneous bodies, like that dance at the gym scene from West Side Story, where the edges are blurred and the only a shaft of clarity links the characters, Tony and Maria. But that was love. This was something else.

“It would depend,” said Omar, “on how far back you wanted to go.”

Then a small group was walking across the Quad, laughing loudly together, bundled into their down jackets. They were indeed carrying a couple of pizza boxes from Jerry’s on Webster Street. Somebody said, “Oh yeah.”

“I got one one veggie, one pepperoni,” a girl said, opening the top box and sending it around. The smell hit Naomi (whose own dinner plans, after all, had been canceled) with a stab of hunger. It was all she could do not to grab a steaming slice as it passed by. It was deeply cold now, and they were all standing close to one another. They seemed to have entirely forgotten that she was there, or perhaps it was more accurate to say that her being there hadn’t made much of an impact in the first place. For the first time since the first protester had unrolled the first sleeping bag on this ground—this, well, not hallowed, maybe, but this important, symbolic, meaningful (at least, to many) Webster ground—she was furious at them. And they had gotten her own daughter caught up in this, whatever this was. And Hannah had better things to do. Naomi caught herself. They all. They all had better things to do than this. Whatever this was.

The conversations were muffled by pizza and the cold. She made out only snatches: Why not? . . . Sorbonne . . . I said to him, I said . . . just devastated by that.

“You know who he is, right?” a voice said, very close to her. It was Elise, her former student.

“Who is?”

She nodded in his direction. Already Naomi knew whom she meant.

“Actually, no. I assume he’s a Webster student.” (He’d better at least be that, she thought.)

“He’s a sophomore, but he’s a few years older. He lost a few years.”

Naomi braced herself. Webster students usually came straight from high school. Sometimes, increasingly of late, they took gap years, but seldom more than one. When a Webster student “lost a few years” that usually meant hospitalization. And hospitalization usually meant depression. But sometimes it meant other things—worse things. Worse than depression? Cancer. Psychosis. Oh crap, she thought, remembering the father who called every day. Please do not, not, let it be psychosis. She took a breath. “Oh? How so?”

But Elise shook her head. “Not for me to tell you. It’s his story. If he wants to be public about his life, he’ll do it. He always says this isn’t about him. It’s about what happened to Professor Gall. And Webster, of course.”

“What happened to Professor Gall?” Naomi said, entirely aware of the irritation in her voice. You mean the part about how he committed plagiarism, or the part about how he was caught? But that was off-limits. The whole process was cloaked in privacy, padlocked by institutional secrecy. She couldn’t tell them, even if she wanted to. She was pretty sure she didn’t want to. “You know,” she said instead, “if there is an issue to be discussed, let’s discuss it.”

But Elise looked away—evasive, certainly, but not, somehow, in a hostile or even particularly self-conscious way. It was as if she simply had run out of things to say.

“Look!” Naomi thundered. She felt as surprised to hear herself as everyone else clearly was, but they all stopped talking. “I would like to be of help to you. I would like to hear what you have to say, but you need to start talking to us, and by us I mean the college administration.” She made a point of looking at all of them, taking her time to turn her head so that everyone had her dedicated gaze, albeit briefly, but really she was speaking to this one, this Omar. He had said nothing to imply it, but it was his response that mattered, and they all listened for it. Naomi willed herself to sound rational, but her thoughts were reeling. “I happen to believe in peaceful protest. I happen to have taken part in many peaceful protests.” (And a few that tipped into the less- than-peaceful, she thought, before pressing on.) “But in every single instance we made sure that our message was well defined and clearly articulated. That is not so much to ask of you, and I don’t think it’s fair of you to expect the college to tolerate your continued occupation of this communal space if you aren’t prepared to engage in dialogue.”

No one responded. She made herself wait. She let him know she was waiting for him, and he looked back at her from inside the brown hoodie—so small, and so powerful. Finally, she had to give in.

“I understand that you may be disappointed by a tenure decision. Tenure, as I’m sure you know, is a very complex process, with many factors. It’s also a process that protects the privacy of the applicant. I’m sure you can understand that.”

They did not appear to understand that at all.

“But obviously I would like you to be able to express your opinions and your feelings about this, or any other issues that are troubling you. So you are all, cordially, invited to my office tomorrow afternoon. I am clearing my schedule. I am holding office hours for this group, though you can come individually if you prefer. My only interest is in learning more about your concerns and your intentions. We share this community, and I’m sure we all want the best for it. If there are problems to be identified, issues to be discussed, changes to be made . . . whatever. It won’t happen if you won’t . . . ” Talk, she wanted to say. Open your fucking mouths with their years of orthodontia and use those expensively educated voices to articulate your pathetic complaints about this . . . this halcyon, evolved, rarified, creative, and intellectual college campus, where you are free to learn and nap and make things and have sex and get high and change your fucking gender even, and clean water comes out of the tap and you wave your school ID under a scanner to help yourself to smorgasbords of food (meat! meat alternative! vegan! lactose-sensitive! nut-free! gluten-free!) and all we expect of you is that you pass your classes and don’t hurt anyone else. But she didn’t say these things. Of course she didn’t say them.

“Please,” Naomi said. “I’d like to hear from you.”

And she left them all, in the unnecessary cold, and went home.

Excerpted and adapted from the book The Devil and Webster, by Jean Hanff Korelitz. © 2017 by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.