A debut novel focuses on a professor’s obsession with a troubled student.
Rothgery presents English professor Stephen Mollgaard. Stephen teaches at a college in Oregon. As a divorced father of two, he must travel to California to see his children. He also suffers from occasional seizures and has a troubling memory of seeing an eagle trapped in a wooden box as a boy. Nevertheless, his problems pale in comparison to those of some of his students as well as the various homeless people who live in his town. One such distressed student (who is also occasionally homeless) is a young woman named Silkie. Silkie’s origins are mysterious, though in time Stephen learns that she has a daughter, likes books, and suffers from a mental illness that she refers to as “schizoaffective something or other.” In her own strange way, Silkie manages to get Stephen to look at his world anew. But why is he so taken with Silkie? Does he want to protect her? Sleep with her? Or is he yearning for something else entirely? The narrative rolls along as Silkie appears and disappears from Stephen’s life. His journey will lead him everywhere from Boise to a local bead shop, though in the end he must, of course, decide what to do with himself.
As one might expect from an English professor, Stephen’s odyssey involves a great deal of words to go with all the action. He mentions Stephen Crane and Foucault, to name just two authors. Then there are newspaper articles and writings from past students that he meticulously files. Like many of the story’s characters, he also displays an odd penchant for speaking with ellipses. Take Stephen’s explanation after he receives a peculiar phone call about Silkie: “I still think…it was her…herself…who called.” The results make for some weird exchanges. How many ellipses-extended sentiments need readers wade through to get to the heart of the matter? What keeps the narrative swiftly moving is Silkie. Stephen seems destined to pass or fail at this curious time in his life (he will remain a mild-mannered English professor or he won’t), but Silkie is a wild card. Just about anything could become of her. If readers think Stephen will merely help ease her into a domestic existence, they are certainly in for some surprises. As Stephen admits, “I needed her. But what would I do with her?” Stephen’s object of fascination is certainly elusive, yet the tale misses opportunities for more intrigue and impact. At one point, he babysits Silkie’s daughter. It is a comically awkward situation, though it could have been played for bigger laughs. While the unpaid babysitting gig leads the protagonist to meet more of the area’s homeless, their stories are not particularly revealing. Stephen winds up learning a lot in the end but not as much as he could have.
A brisk but bumpy college tale.