Middle-aged Jack Gladney, chair of Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill in a midwestern town, watches the students return to campus. He lives with his wife Babette and their children from previous marriages. He and American Studies teacher Murray Siskind visit the most photographed barn in America. Foreshadowing of an Airborne Toxic Event abounds.
Why Jack might be hard to identify with: We’re hardwired to dislike men like Jack with an unspecified number of ex-wives he doesn’t get along well with. And of course, like any postmodern hero, he’s disconnected from his surroundings and his own thoughts and feelings, which risks us being unable to connect to him.
- The book has lots of lists of brand-name objects to make everything specific. “Onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.”
- Complicated family situations always feel realistic.
- They’re poorer than the students. “Not that we don’t have a station wagon ourselves.” “It’s small, it’s metallic gray, it has one whole rusted door.”
- He’s got a vague malaise: “Things, boxes. Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight?”
- We’ll find out shortly after this excerpt that he has a big embarrassing secret: He doesn’t speak or read German, and he trying to learn it in secret.
- But he doesn’t suffer that much in the first half. He’s largely just benignly observing and sort of marveling at his world. He’ll suffer a lot in the second half, where he’ll be exposed to a toxic cloud and find out his wife is having an affair.
- We like his odd eyes. He uses odd adjectives (his wife’s hair is “a fanatical blonde mop”)
- He’s an obsessive observer: In the middle of a clutch with his wife, he spots a plane: “I met her at the edge of the playing field and embraced her, putting my hands inside the sweatband of her gray cotton pants. A small plane appeared over the trees. Babette was moist and warm, emitting a creaturely hum.”
- He’s funny: Murray says: “I understand the music, I understand the movies, I even see how comic books can tell us things. But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.” Jack responds, “It’s the only avant-garde we’ve got.”