There was one more thing I had to do before I found Fritz and left
Ithaca. I had to say good-bye to Deirdre one last time. More and more,
I regretted that I hadn’t known her. Four or five lovers a week over nine
years—that probably added up to two thousand. What a remarkable
record. What a spectacular slut. What a benefactor to mankind. It was
admirable. It made my own efforts on earth seem feeble. What had I done
to match that? And what had Melissa said about her? People confided in
her. People revealed themselves to her. Even I might have told her things.
I’d have liked that. My glued-down, cement-coated tongue might have
been freed at last. God, what a relief. I’d have been changed forever.
I’d have become a diff erent person. And it would have been so easy,
because whatever I told her would have been lost forever in a sea of other
confessions. Two thousand of them.
Someone else was in the room, sitting on the sofa. Only the head and
shoulders were distinct. I waited for whoever it was to turn on the light or
at least say something, but the figure just sat there, facing me. “Sally?” I
said, and I turned on the light.
It was Sally, all right. She was looking at me, but what she saw, I
couldn’t say. Her tongue was sticking out; she must have bitten it, because
a string of bloody saliva had dribbled down her chin. Her arms were at
her sides, and from her feet to her waist she was encased in a huge black
plastic bag, the kind for industrial trash; the empty lower end of it stretched
another three or four feet out onto the rug in front of her. She wore one
curious adornment. Th ere was a black belt, pulled far beyond the last
notch, around her neck.
The Thesis in Gorging Out
The thesis in Gorging Out is absolutely central to the plot. Controversial and morally dubious and possibly even criminal, it precipitates strife and ill-feeling, including a violent argument between two of the professors on the thesis committee. In his letter of resignation from the committee, Fritz’s chief adversary writes to Fritz’s major professor, “That he should take aberrant behavior and attempt to make a virtue of it is utterly repugnant to me. Further, that you should allow him in the course of his research to indulge his own perverted inclinations is absolutely incredible. It makes a mockery of the entire subject of human behavior. It cannot be allowed to continue. What exists of it should be destroyed. In a way, however, none of this surprises me. From the moment he arrived here, Engler has displayed a nihilistic attitude toward science and possibly everything else. I think that if allowed to proceed, he could singlehandedly destroy the credibility of the department and bring scorn on the entire university; this perhaps was even his goal in attempting the study. The responsibility for this, I fear, is yours. Through neglect and lack of supervision, you allowed him to operate in an atmosphere of total intellectual permissiveness. And this is what he came up with.”
The thesis committee, with Dr. Compton abstaining, stated that “neither Cornell nor any other American university would ever allow such a thesis to be conducted under its auspices, dealing as it does with several untouchable subjects—the promotion and sponsorship of prostitution among the student body and the secret filming of students engaged in sexual activity. It is revolutionary and totally out-of-bounds and could be destructive to the mental health of the participants.
The two cousins—Roger and Fritz, are the central figures in Gorging Out. They dislike one another intensely but in some ways are rather alike. Both have sexual problems. Both are or were recently graduate students working on their doctoral theses. As the story progresses, we learn much more about Roger than we do about Fritz, who appears in the book only at the very end and under shocking circumstances.
A difference between them is that Fritz has come up with a brilliant thesis topic in which he works out his sexual problems in an unusual and perverse way; Roger’s thesis is pedestrian and boring—and his advisor’s idea, not his own. Roger has so lost interest in it that he is willing to trash his entire academic career just to be free of it. There is a downside to Fritz’s thesis, however—brilliant though it may be, it involves prostitution, extortion and finally, murder.
Fritz humiliates Roger by offering him a woman he has brought into the house with the precondition that he be allowed to watch. Fritz is impotent and interested in sex only as a voyeur. With him it’s not physical satisfaction (which doesn’t really interest him) but power over others. For him every sexual act is a struggle for control.
Whereas Roger’s love for his aunt is profound and genuine, based on gratitude for the way she took him when he had nowhere else to go. Roger recognizes that she really saved his life. In the deathbed scene, he repays her by offering her comfort and forgiveness and reconciliation with her son. At her deathbed, Roger “becomes” her son. He handles all the last details of wrapping up his aunt’s life—finding a priest, arranging for the service, and getting the tomb prepared for her interment. For Fritz, his mother is only a bank who has little use in life except to give him money.
The winter setting is used to good effect. Winter is when Ithaca becomes most truly itself. The weather gives way to wind and relentless cold. The city becomes more anonymous. Few people are out on the street and those that are scurry from building to building. No matter what you put on, is never enough.
I grew up in Milwaukee where my family has roots for several generations. My father died when I was very young and my mother remarried a very good man with whom I always had a close and affectionate relationship. He was the person who pointed me in the direction of Yale, where I majored in English literature, with a special interest in 19th Century novels. On graduation I moved to New York where I worked as the science editor for Dover Publications but left to pursue a long-time interest in birds. I got a Ph.D. from Cornell, based on my field work in the Central Andes of Colombia. In recent years I worked for American Bird Conservancy, a small but exceptionally effective organization which specializes in conservation of habitat for rare birds in Latin America and the Caribbean, to which I traveled many times. I left the organization to pursue my writing but have kept up close contact with it. My wife is from the Washington area and have two daughters.
There is obviously a lot to recommend Ivy League schools: rigorous academic standards, a distinguished faculty, the chance to pursue a prestigious degree, becoming part of a community which offers the benefits of assistance and counseling in job searches. However all this comes with a price—pressure to excel, intense competition with one’s peers. meeting tight deadlines—for some the pressure is too much. They are inexorably drawn toward the suspension bridge over the gorge and even beyond—over the railing into the void.
Sometimes years go by with no suicides, followed by years where there are half a dozen, or even more. To counteract this, the university has inaugurated a program of suicide prevention, going as far as posting guards on the suspension bridges, sending counselors into the dorms looking for students at risk, and strengthening the barriers.
The present novel focuses on one death in the gorge—that of a graduate student named Deirdre Paxton, a beautiful but promiscuous woman; though a main character in the plot, she never appears alive in the book. Her death is particularly puzzling; why did she do it? According to people who knew her, her life was turning around and for the first time in weeks she was showing signs of optimism. Was it a sudden impulse? A feeling of identity with all the others who had died there through the years, their hands reaching out to her, something too strong to resist? The reasons for and circumstances of her death are the central questions in the plot. The novel provides surprising and shocking answers to these questions.
My inspiration for writing “Gorging Out” came from two sources: first, my work on my Ph.D. thesis at Cornell and second and much more importantly, the sexual graffiti on the walls of the men’s room on the seventh floor in the main library where I did most of my work. Most of these graffiti named women who were sexually available. The sexual graffiti appearing in the book were by-and-large copied word for word from the graffiti on the bathroom stalls, excluding names. Several of the women are characters in the novel, including an apparent suicide, who becomes a focus of the novel.
I found myself thinking less about my real thesis (on wintering migrant birds in Colombia) and more about this imagined thesis on the sexual profiles of men who look up such women for sexual encounters and the evolutionary implications of such behavior. With a novel in mind, I wrote up a thesis proposal for this topic and began to make notes. I took an evolutionary approach as this offers great potential for bullshit and baseless speculation that would best serve my purposes.
The props and the settings for the book were all right there and inspired me—Ithaca’s steep hills and icy streets where one false step can mean bashing one’s brains out on the sidewalk; the students so bundled up that they can hardly be recognized; the run-down rooming houses on the fringes of the University; and most of all, the snow-covered graveyard which I traversed on my way to the library. Winter itself is nearly a character in the story. In Ithaca it is long and harsh and for several months it holds sway over one’s daily life.
Like everyone at Cornell, I was well aware of student suicides. The topic, sadly, is an unavoidable undercurrent in academic life there. The two deep gorges that border the campus contribute to this, making suicide only too convenient. By installing barriers on the suspension bridges, the university has at least made it more difficult.
The site from which Deirdre Paxton leapt to her death: “Before I decided what to do next, I had a morbid curiosity to fulfill. My tour of the Cornell campus hadn’t been quite complete.
The book checker at the front door was a colorful fellow of Mexican or Pakistani extraction, so common at schools nowadays, who gave me one of those little campus maps, and drew a big “X” on the spot I wanted to see. Outside the library I turned right and walked up towards the north end of the arts quad and across the road into a wooded area where a path led down a slope to a footbridge across the gorge. Here was the dark side of academic life, the refuge for those who sought to enter the heavens by first plunging upside down into the depths of the earth. I walked out onto the middle of it and looked at the icy, rocky walls, which dropped at least a hundred and fifty feet down into a swift stream. Little cyclones of snow whirled up from the depths. The wind there was bitter. It blew up my pants legs and down the back of my neck. I imagined Deirdre Paxton, her hair wild with a day of weeping and teeth-gnashing, seeking relief at that wild spot. First the hands, then one leg, then the other, then goodbye to it all, pushing back and out, careful not to smash her pretty head against the railing. She must have been an exceptional girl. From what I’ve read women usually gas themselves or take pills. Not one in a thousand has the guts to take a dive like Deirdre did. More and more I wondered why she’d done it.”