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Complete Composting Down: SOLVE FOR X, by Arthur Saltzman

Dr. Saltzman was a Chicago Jew, a point that’s only worth leading with because he settled in a place that wasn’t Chicago and that didn’t include many Jews. Joplin was so insensitive toward Jews, in fact, that no one even thought it queer that Don’s Army Surplus boasted Nazi paraphernalia among its tree stands, mace, and gas masks. To my shame, I counted myself among the un-offended. This was high school, mind you, and though I probably should have known better, I didn’t. We’d drive out after school, that curvy two-lane out to Neosho, the ash from our Marlboro Reds speckling the backseat like a Pollack, or, depending on your taste, like bird droppings. We’d slide the coats across the racks in search of an army jacket like the one John Lennon wore on the cover of Live in New York City, pausing respectfully when the ghost of a name appeared over the left breast—a Dishman, a Robinson—then continuing on our hunt, discounting out of hand the camouflage, the slickers, honing in instead on the olive canvas, nothing more than a shirt really, dependent upon layering—of flannels, of thermals—to gather any kind of real warmth. We scavenged in relative ignorance of the trinity of flags looming over us: one American, one Southern, one Nazi. To this day I don’t know if Don arrayed them in this order as a warning or as a threat. Were they a statement, or were they a narrative?

I never saw Dr. Saltzman at Don’s. He was instead relegated to the college that the town didn’t even have the decency to put on a hill. Joplin reserved that honor for Ozark Christian College, which had but a fraction of Southern’s student population but was more closely aligned with the rest of the community, ideologically speaking, and, thus, more deserving of their perch. OCC was out toward Carl Junction, where those three high school students had beaten their retarded friend to death with a bat in some kind of a satanic ritual the summer I moved to Missouri from California. One of the three murderers was an honor student, the class president. When the cops came to his door, he said, “You’re here about Steven.” This was my introduction to my new hometown. Welcome to the Midwest. Duck.

Missouri Southern was kind of out toward Webb City and kind of out toward Carthage, but it was mostly not toward anything at all, which is how the rest of the town liked it.

“You’re moving to a college town, aren’t you?” my girlfriend’s father had asked before I left San Diego. He was trying to put a positive spin on the situation, the look on my face for the months leading up to the move reminiscent of nothing as much as bereavement. In my mind, Missouri equaling death. And not in any abstract kind of way. I mean real, permanent, irrevocable death.

“I don’t know. I guess.”

“Yeah, you’re moving to a college town. You’re going to love it.”

I wasn’t fully aware of the implications of the term “college town,” but whatever the promises contained therein I was pretty sure they were not being kept. Joplin was a town and it did indeed include a college, but there the similarities ended. The relationship between the two wasn’t outright hostile—the mayor didn’t set bags full of shit on fire and then leave it on the provost’s porch, and the provost didn’t do donuts on the mayor’s lawn—but a mutual lack of respect festered, nonetheless. The locals thought of the faculty as a bunch of arrogant, godless, spouse-swapping ACLU-lovers who protested against the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers when they weren’t inquiring at the local head shop about a new “Visualize World Peace” bumper sticker, their previous sticker being defaced while they were in the candle shop at the mall. And the faculty thought of the locals as a group of ignorant, racist, gun-toting homophobes whose yards looked like perpetual garage sales and who might actually make something of their lives if they could only get over the infatuation with aluminum foil, Roman candles, and those screeching tops that whirled like dervishes before exploding in the air. “Awesome,” they would say, before taking another swig of their Natty Lite and igniting another.  

Of course, they were both right about the other.

In these unofficial culture wars, several professors embodied the college. With his distinguished gray beard and his elbow-patched tweed jackets, Dr. Denniston tackled the role of the Shakespeare professor every bit as well as Olivier played Hamlet. Dr. Lambert’s push-broom mustache, protruding belly, and dry wit qualified him to teach Twain better than any dissertation. And, as the lone tenured, female member of the English Department, Dr. Walters represented her gender well, with a mind as sharp as the “T” in “Bronte” somewhere beneath that pixie-ish haircut.

But none of these figures—really, not even the college itself—looms larger than Dr. Saltzman.

I heard about him years before I ever set foot in his class. His wife at the time was the Enrichment teacher at my junior high school, and though I wasn’t smart enough to actually be in Enrichment, I was smart enough to have a crush on the girls who were, so I heard all about their extracurricular activities—their investigative hikes at George Washington Carver National Park or their community service in the soup line at Soul’s Harbor—which inevitably roped in Dr. Saltzman as a chauffeur.

“He’s just so sarcastic,” the smart girls would say. “He’s the most sarcastic man I have ever met.”

In my mind, “sarcastic” was akin to “cynical,” which wasn’t too far removed from “curmudgeonly.” I pictured Saltzman at the wheel, a gaggle of giggling girls in the backseat, for even smart girls giggle, and his wife in the passenger’s seat, half turned to the girls and half to her husband, occasionally barking directions—“Turn right, Art. Arthur, turn right.”—Saltzman silently obeying, inwardly seething. My impression then was that he was less put upon than it sounds now, though, admittedly, “resigned” hits pretty close to the mark, but resigned in a sense of someone who has reconciled with himself that he will not always be allowed to use his full powers, that there are times when he will instead be required to cart around cars full of teenage girls. Saltzman himself would later introduce me to Saul Bellow. At the time, the best I could do was Walter Mitty.

Yet doughy, impotent Walter Mitty hardly captures his virility. He was a big man, probably 6’4”, who wore his 220 pounds well. He was only in his 40’s, but the wrinkles on his face were deep enough to hold a quarter, particularly those that encircled his mouth like parentheses. His Short Story or Recent Popular Fiction or Creative Writing classes were ostensibly “discussion,” but that really meant that he would tap his foot fitfully for the 15 minutes we were allowed to flounder before he took the reigns and led us to the heart of the discussion.  But even if he regularly failed to tame his more dictatorial tendencies—I find that the best professors rarely do—he eschewed his rightful place at the head of the class. We started each session by forming a circle with our desks, Saltzman walking among us, squeezing himself into the space between the seat and the writing surface in a way that I would relate to a circus elephant balancing on a thimble-like stool if the image weren’t so unflattering. Books looked small in his hands, an unfair fight.

I knew from our discussion of Rabbit, Run—well, his discussion of Rabbit, Run—that he was passionate about basketball, still played even with a group of trusted friends at the Y on Wednesday nights. I pictured him on the court, his back to the basket, wearing down an opponent with his considerable hindquarters, his arm raised, calling for the ball. He wears a knee brace. He says things like “nice take” and “what’s the count?” When a ball heads out of bounds, he and another player lunge for it. Saltzman is falling away, the ball in his possession. He has no clear pass to an open teammate, so at the last second he throws the ball into his opposition’s shin. The ball ricochets against the water fountain. Another player taps him on the head as he walks past. “Nice hustle.” Saltzman nods, breathes heavily, and waits for play to resume.

This is all before I learned that he was dead, that Dr. Saltzman had died, before my dad called me in the middle of the day and said, “Kirb.” My dad never calls. Heart attack, he said, though I later heard aneurysm. Passed in the night. Joy was asleep right next to him. She must have woken up and. He couldn’t have been, what, 55, 56? I’m 62. The campus is in shock. I thought you’d want to know.

I was at work. I clicked my phone shut, prepared for my one o’clock.

Solve for X is Dr. Saltzman’s third book of creative nonfiction, or, as he a little self-aggrandizingly preferred to call it, his third book of “lyrical essays.” A fourth followed posthumously. Unsurprisingly, reading Dr. Saltzman’s nonfiction is a little like spending time with the man himself, which, I suppose, is part of the draw or part of the resistance, depending on which camp you sided with, and he was certainly polarizing enough to populate them both.

The essays are exquisitely wrought, sometimes distractingly so, but that should be expected by a man who would ask “For whom are you babysitting?” while holding a drink with an umbrella in it, not that he ever drank drinks with umbrellas. The subjects of his essays range from his childhood in Chicago to his tense relationship with the rural Midwest to the significance he gleans from commonplace things that most of us take for granted. About the board game Scrabble, for example, he writes, “It is merciless. It reveals too much. No other game is so charged with implication and prospects for shame.” That same essay also includes close readings of Sorry and Monopoly.

Most of all, however, the essays reflect the man in the baldness of their honesty. Dr. Saltzman was not one who could conceal what he was feeling at any given moment. He was not one of those teachers who carefully delineated his professional and his private lives. He refused to speak in hypotheticals. Everything was actual. Everything he was experiencing at any given time—whether it was Michael Jordan’s retirement or his daughter’s battle with a rare disease—he carried with him into the classroom, which meant if he was having a bad day, then you were having a bad day. As he was fond of saying, “Your goal should be to make me happy. Because if I’m happy, then you’re happy. Capiche?” He was also fond of saying, “I’m not really teaching you anything. I’m just telling you how to live your life.” And for him it was all life. 

“Living Space,” for example, from his first book of nonfiction, Objects and Empathy (2001), starkly captures the emptiness of a home that has been abandoned in the wake of divorce. Saltzman achingly describes how a man goes from dining at the kitchen table to eating while standing at the counter. “Living alone accelerates the progression of absent habit into studied ritual,” he writes. “For example, it may begin when you decide against spooning the beans onto the plate and opt for eating out of the pot directly. Soon enough you find yourself eating over the kitchen sink to catch the spills more efficiently. You define the elimination of social graces as efficiency.” That image of a man who eats while standing so captivated me that I once tried to write a whole play around it. The play failed. The man, of course, was Dr. Saltzman.

Before Objects and Empathy, Dr. Saltzman boasted a number of books of literary criticism. Some of the titles were straightforward enough—Understanding Raymond Carver or The Fiction of William Gass—but others carried with them the stench of Academia—Designs of Darkness in Contemporary American Fiction or The Novel in the Balance. I never knew exactly how he felt about playing that game. “You have to consider both sides of the colon,” I remember him once telling the class. “The first part you’re supposed to be clever, but the second is what it’s really about.” He mentioned this around the time of the release of This Mad Instead: Governing Metaphors in Contemporary American Fiction. I never read any of Dr. Saltzman’s academic books cover to cover, but I did flip through a few of them in the library on occasion. I memorized as much as I needed to in order to casually drop by his office hours and insert a reference—a reference that I knew would switch him into lecture mode—but the truth is that I barely understood a word. How can he be so engaging in class, I wondered, and so obfuscating in print?

"Obfuscating."  There's a word I didn't know until Saltzman introduced it to me.


My copy of Objects and Empathy includes an inscription that says, “For Kirby and Leuinda, just don’t get me involved in the Woolf controversy. In lieu of instant cleverness, all good wishes! Art Saltzman (28 Feb. 2003).” My dad is the one who bought the book for me and secured the inscription. There’s an email printed off and pressed into the pages in which I had written and my dad had underlined, “I can’t wait to see what witticism he comes up with on the inside cover.” I think I would say “for the inside cover” today. Apparently, too, there was a controversy about Virginia Woolf.

The story of how I acquired Solve for X is less memorable, its markings less personal. I heard that he had died and I ordered it online. See. I told you. I figured that buying his most recent book was the least I could do to honor him. The rock star who sells more records in death than he does in life. I guess there’s something there too about hearing his voice one last time, though it had been a long, long stretch since we last communicated. Still, just not being able to anymore was enough to prompt the purchase. I still haven’t bought the book that was published after he passed. There’s something about not finishing all of him that I find comforting.

The only thing of note in my copy of Solve for X is a message on a piece of scratch paper that has become the bookmark. Apparently I received the book in the mail and had gone out for the night before my wife got home. I had scribbled for her a message and left it with the book. The message says, “The dedication is lovely and I suspect the opening of the first essay will inspire some mixed emotions. See you soon! love – k.” The book’s dedication says, “For EMS and WHG, who make me celebrate July 30, and for Joy, who altogether graces the calendar.” I don’t know who “EMS” and “WHG” are, though I suspect they are Dr. Saltzman’s parents, the “S” in the first set of initials and what appears to be a birthday all but giving that one away, but I do know who “Joy” is. Joy was Dr. Saltzman’s girlfriend, or, as he calls her throughout the book, his “beloved.”

I knew both Joy and Dr. Saltzman when they were someone else’s beloved, but, hey, these things happen. Don’t judge him for that. Judge him because he wouldn’t say hello to you in the hall unless you said so first or because he wouldn’t ask what happened if one day you came to class with a cast on your forearm or because his favorite response to students who didn’t agree with his ways was “I have tenure. What are they going to do?” But don’t judge him because he met his soul mate after he met his wife.

Not that anyone on campus was able to resist. Their affair caused quite a stir, as Joplin tried to prove how cosmopolitan it was by fielding a chattering class. I worked at a retail store just out of college, a toy store—OK, it was a Toys R Us—and the wife of a professor whom I much admired came bounding up to me not long after the story broke. “What is going on with Art and Joy?!” I had no idea she traded in such scandal. Joy also taught at Southern, her office a few doors down from Saltzman’s, so you can imagine.

Truth is, though, when I first heard the news about them getting together, it felt like a natural match. She hung pictures of Sinead O’Connor in her office, had had a poem published in The Paris Review. It was something to do with a bird taking flight, if I recall correctly, the poem. I read it. Didn’t understand a word. I think she used the scientific term for what I would refer to as the bird’s “shin.” He was the resident scholar, the only one on staff who was regularly publishing while still juggling a full teaching load. When the poet Donald Hall visited nearby Pittsburg University in Kansas, Saltzman accompanied him into the lecture hall. They entered like they were a couple, Charles and Diana for fuck’s sake. After, when we were having post-reading drinks and all of the students were trying to one-up each other in front of the faculty with our insights, Saltzman called Donald “Don.” “Don was telling me on the ride over.” Why they weren’t together on the way back I’ll never know.

No, Saltzman and Joy were inevitable. They were bound to swim into each other’s lives, especially given the size of the pond that they had chosen to call home.


“At nine years old, Jeremy is anxious about wasting any more time than he already has.” That’s the first line of Solve for X, the one that I thought might inspire some mixed emotions. Jeremy is Joy’s son with her first (maybe second?) husband. Leuinda babysat him for the first years of his life. Leu tells a story about how he went through a Batman phase and refused to go anywhere without his costume on. She was driving, he was in the car seat in the back, and all she could see were his little pointy ears in the rearview mirror. We marveled at how well he was able to say “Schenectady.”

That Jeremy is nine in this essay is hard to fathom. That he is a teenager at the time of this writing is impossible. Almost as impossible as Saltzman being gone.


I always pegged Dr. Saltzman as a writer first and a scholar second. Actually, check that. I always pegged Dr. Saltzman as a reader first, a writer second, and a scholar third, which by no means diminishes the man’s scholarship. As a scholar, he had this annoying ability at cocktail parties to know more about Chaucer than the Medievalists, more about Shelley than the Romanticists, and more about Joyce than the Modernists, or, well, it must have been annoying for the Medievalists, the Romanticists, and the Modernists, anyway. A conversation about Queenie from Updike’s “A&P” would spiral into a digression about Falstaff that went on for so long that I had to check my syllabus to make sure I was still in my Short Story class. Of course, the putative title of the course had little to do with anything, as Saltzman would liberally pepper throughout any given class references to Bill Cosby from I Spy or to Linus from a long-ago “Peanuts” strip or to Harry Caray from the Cubs broadcast booth the afternoon before.

This was all part of his postmodern bent that I sensed but couldn’t articulate at the time and was thus unable to identify as part of my attraction to him: Whereas other professors snootily guarded their dissertation-ordained portion of the Western Canon (caps theirs), Dr. Saltzman welcomed all comers: Henry IV, or should I say 1HenryIV, The Canterbury Tales, “A&P,” I Spy, “Peanuts,” The Sound and the Fury, To the Lighthouse, and whatever WGN showed after the latest Cubs loss—these were all equal, or at least they were all equal insofar as their ability to provide raw material was the same. And that, for him, is what it all was: Raw material for his own writing.

He confesses as much in “Why I Don’t Write Best Sellers,” an essay that I knew I knew before I read a single word because he riffed on the theme often enough in class. In class, he would say, “Faulkner tried to write a potboiler, and he ended up writing Sanctuary,” a point that was lost on me because, not having read Sanctuary, I didn’t know if it was good or bad. (For the record, I have since read it, and I still don’t know.) In the essay, Saltzman refreshingly discusses the relatively recent shift in the English classroom away from primary texts and in favor of this ephemeral thing called “theory.” He’s kinder about the matter than John Goodman’s character is in David Simon’s Treme, who laments that all English majors want to do anymore is study themselves, but there is, nonetheless, an undeniable sense of loss in Saltzman’s ruminations. He notes that 25 years ago “not all of us freshly minted Ph.D.’s had as yet been outplaced by theorists, nor had we as yet detected their smoke on the horizon. We persisted in believing that there were still jobs available for honest sentences to do and, a savagely constricted job market to the contrary, that there remained tenurable occupation for their makers….Some of us even dared to imagine that our own language, as though enriched by context, occasionally lived up to the level set by the language that set us analyzing.”

The “us” in that last sentence should not be overlooked.

In some ways, the movement away from the deep read that characterized his previous work was the best thing that could have happened to him, for, as he knew—and as those humbled professors at the cocktail party knew—he could hold his own with the Lukacses and the Bakhtins and the Foucaults if he wanted to. He just didn’t want to. And, as he writes, even if he did want to, “I knew myself to be recidivist at the core. While the ostensibly reformed alcoholic keeps a flask beneath his mattress and gin-filed aspirin bottles tucked back in his sock drawer, I would secretly imbibe from a stash of smoothly intoxicating sentences. I might rinse with Ricouer or gnash Derrida like anise seeds to cover my breath. But by my wistful expression and my wobble, you’d know what contraband I’d been sneaking.”

As of this writing, Solve for X is number 2,746,682 on Amazon’s list of bestselling books.

After graduation, I helped start a readers group that included former and current students and a few select members of the faculty. Dr. Saltzman was one such member. We would give each other assignments—find a piece of prose that feels especially poetic or a passage from a 19th century novel of which you are especially fond—and we’d meet in restaurants or at people’s houses or at bookstores and snack and drink and talk about literature with a capital “L,” which I still believed in at the time, but mostly for me anyway it was a way to continue the classroom experience after the diploma was in hand. I don’t know how much I actually liked college and how much I just clung to it because I didn’t know what else to do.

Saltzman was a gracious member of the group. He and Joy were an open secret by that point. She was part of the group too, and I liked seeing the two of them interact as partners rather than as colleagues. They would arrive and leave together, pay for their part of the tab with one bill. At the end of the night, he would help her into her coat. One time, we were leaving Books-a-Million after one of our meetings. Books-a-Million is a discount, warehouse-type bookstore in Joplin that includes a Starbucks rip-off inside and always smacked of For All Bible to me, but maybe that just comes with the territory. In any case, it was Leu, me, Dr. Saltzman, and Joy. We were walking to our cars. I said, “Have a good night, Dr. Saltzman.” He said, “Kirby, you’ve graduated. We’re not in class anymore. You don’t have to call me ‘Doctor.’ ‘Professor’ will do just fine.”


Is it heretical to say that somewhere in the 2,700,000’s is probably where Solve for X belongs? After all, Amazon’s list of bestsellers measures a readership that can hardly be described as discerning. Four of the top 10 bestselling books help their readers either gain money or lose weight, and the top spot is occupied by a story about a boy who travels to heaven and returns to share what he has learned. Yes, he travels to that heaven. As the book’s summary says, “[T]he disarmingly simple message is heaven is a real place, Jesus really loves children, and be ready, there is a coming last battle.”

I imagine Dr. Saltzman’s reaction to someone who tried to pit his work against these chart-toppers would be something along the same lines as what the guitarist for REM said when a reporter compared his band’s waning sales with those of Britney Spears, who, at the time, was looking down at the rest of the pop world from her perch, panties be damned: “Whatever she has, we don’t,” the guitarist quipped.

Come on, I can hear Saltzman pleading, don’t put me in the same ring with that. It’s not even a fair fight. In “Bestsellers,” he aligns himself with Borges, who claimed that he wrote “perhaps for a few personal friends.” Saltzman notes, “I’m with him, grudgingly, in that it ends up being primarily a few friends who read and do not begrudge me my writing.”

Of course, he’s right. To set him opposite Amazon’s hardest hitters rigs the fight. There’s no way he can compete with such accomplished authors as Barbara Streisand and Sammy Hagar, both of whom are currently in the Top 20.

His bigger problem is that I’m not even completely sure that I like Solve for X, and I probably qualify as one of his “few friends who read and do not begrudge [him his] writing.” The truth is that I find it uneven at best. A few choice essays elevate the majority of the work that is otherwise self-indulgent or, most unforgivable of all, boring.

One of the great temptations of evaluating a life so prematurely interrupted is that you want to predict where it would have gone from there—like calculating end-of-year totals based on a player’s performance at the All-Start break—and Dr. Saltzman wasn’t even at the break, not in his new career yet, anyway. He was, let’s call it, a third of the way in, another seven to ten books easily ahead, maybe even more. He had received some recognition, some awards. Another book followed, so clearly he had some reserves. If he had continued at this trajectory, how high would he have gone? I want to project a life in which he sustains himself through his writing. I want him to leave behind the students who weren’t deserving of him anyway. I want to grant him a retirement party in which he is himself the first one to leave. “Smell you later,” he says, as the door clangs shut. He does not look back.

But I can’t. How far would he have gone? The answer, at best: Not very.

I would actually add “language” above “books” on my nonbinding list of things that Dr. Saltzman valued, which, in case you’re not keeping score at home, makes “language” number one with a bullet. This love of language, this adoration of individual words, is both what drives his essays and what gets in their way.

When I started reading Solve for X, I kept a list of all of the words I was going to have to look up, but the list didn’t take. There were simply too many of them. “Noumenal,” “cruet,” “bathysphere,” “pasha,” “orrery,” “colophon,” “lagniappe,” to name but a few. Reading with a dictionary in your lap might work for office hours, but it’s hardly convenient on the A train. (Insert note here that the Kindle has a built-in dictionary.) That said, I was ready for the love affair with language, expected it even. After all, this was the man who spent five solid minutes rhapsodizing over the elegance of the word “latitude,” and I still remember him lingering over “fetishistic” for so long that I thought, Sheesh, just get a room already.

So, too, was I ready for the similes and metaphors that are so painstakingly labored that they overwhelm the rest of any given page: “with apologies to the battery of high school math teachers who passed me hurriedly up the line like a leaky bucket” or “One enters [a hotel bed] like an incision, sliding into sleep like a letter into its envelope or an afterthought between parentheses” or, appropriately enough, “Surfing a long sentence can be a heady, splendid ride, but in these cases [i.e., some carefully selected sentences by Henry James] the enterprise is doomed. Either it will dash itself against a period like a boulder or tear its hull against elliptical shoals.” Remember, I minored in the man. I saw this kind of shit coming.


What I didn’t anticipate was his ever-deepening interest in disciplines that were not his own. When he branched out 20 years ago (give or take) he did so in the areas that I hinted at before: sports, popular culture. He would talk about ordering a record from a television commercial that promised all of the hits by “the original artists” and then tell us that when he eventually received the album the cover band interpreting the songs was called—wait for it—the Original Artists. (Ba-dum-pa!) That kind of thing. In Solve for X, however, his tangential targets are weightier, their language—and this is key—more specialized.

Joy and Jeremy birdwatch—remember her poem from The Paris Review—and Dr. Saltzman took great pleasure, not so much in getting out there with his binoculars and his mud boots, but, rather, in studying his Peterson’s before he even left the house: “Out of love, I am learning the topography of birds,” he writes. “I am practicing the positions of their superciliaries, their scapulars, and their secondaries.” He’s boning up out of love, all right, and I don’t doubt his love for Joy, but so too does he commit himself out of love for such words as “superciliaries,” “scapulars,” and “secondaries.” Later, he references a vocabulary card full of architectural terms, as far as I can tell, just so he drop “ornate astragals,” “volutes,” “abaci,” “fillets,” and “helices.”

It is almost as if he so mastered the vocabulary of his own discipline that he had to investigate others in order to satisfy his desire for words, words, and more words. The vampire who runs out of victims at home has to move a town over. The net effect is 25 essays that are ostensibly about such varied subjects as footnotes, Dante, and the Second Amendment, but that really all end up being about the same damn thing: language.

Did I say that 2,700,000 sounded about right? I’m starting to think it’s a tad high.

Which leaves teaching, which I’m not convinced he was good at—not in any Dead Poet’s Society kind of way, anyway—and which I’m even less convinced he actually enjoyed. I don’t think he liked teaching anymore than an addict likes turning tricks. They both did what they had to do to in order to feed their addiction, only in Dr. Saltzman’s case the addiction wasn’t as illicit as the meth that ravaged so many of his neighbors. The addiction, for him, was writing.

There were rumors, especially around the time of his divorce, that he was trying to get out of Joplin, that he was trying to score a teaching gig elsewhere. I heard that he even landed an interview at a school in one of the Carolinas but that he failed to impress in person as much as he did on the page. A fellow professor confided to me in an off-the-record kind of way that Saltzman was rarely at his best when he was under pressure. All of that sarcasm eventually turned to bitterness after all. The most remarkable part of this story for me was that Saltzman would ever feel pressure. I always wondered if he would have actually taken the job, were it offered, what with his daughter still in the Midwest and all. What about Joy? What about Jeremy?

I know that I certainly would have taken it personally if he had left while I was still there, such were my feelings of proprietorship toward him. He played favorites in the classroom, and I was definitely one of them. There’s no denying that. I know this essay would be far more interesting if I were not, if I just kept to myself in the back row, soaking it all up in silence and never confessing how much he meant to me until it was too late, but that would be a lie. I was a favorite. He liked me, and he knew I liked him. I showed up every day, had done the readings, turned in my assignments on time, typed, with the tracks from the dot-matrix printer stripped away. I regularly demonstrated thought even if I never told him anything he didn’t already know.

Swear to god, I raised my hand and contributed maybe three times in four years. Once we were discussing E.L. Doctorow’s “A Writer in the Family,” and I wondered aloud if Doctorow might be punning on “writer/righter.” Saltzman said, Of course he is, and carried right on.

I thought I was going to have a fucking heart attack.

In one of his forays into the sciences, Saltzman writes of his interest in books for beginning physicists, books that I was surprised to learn were on his shelf, with titles like Fear of Physics, A Beginner’s Book of Since the Beginnings, and The Universe Shut Up in a Nutshell. Amateur books. Books for rookies. About these books, he writes, “When obsession gets the better of me, I’ll open one to see how long I can sustain some semblance of coherence before I blear. I’m seldom more than ten minutes out of port before the fog sets in.”

I read this passage and thought, You son of a bitch. This is what your students felt. This confusion. This impenetrability. This, well, you said it yourself, this fog. This is what your students felt when you forced them to read John Hawkes, Toni Morrison, or Marilynne Robinson. Yes, “forced.” You made choices. You knew what it was like to be them. You were not unaware.


But one guy—a football player, not to be all stereotypical about it—would sit in the middle of the desks with his head cracked back and his mouth agape and he would openly snore throughout the class. “It’s getting really hard to look at this everyday,” Saltzman once snapped loudly enough that the guy blinked awake for a moment before drifting back to sleep. Another guy, in a poetry writing class, wrote an ode to a truck that he found at the junkyard. The poem included the line, “If she turns over, I’ll be in love.” Saltzman's job was to provide an earnest critique of the poem. He approached it with the same care that he approached a poem by William Carlos Williams or Dianne Ackerman.

His final exam for his writing classes asked each member of the class to bring to the last meeting a passage they liked from a book. Any book, any passage. That was it. Just bring a passage. This was around Christmas, so I brought in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Christ Climbed Down.” Saltzman hated the Beats, sided with Truman Capote’s typing-not-writing criticism, but that wasn’t the point. The point was read. Share.

Inevitably, three people would bring in something from Parade magazine and one wouldn’t bring in anything at all.

The first paragraph of my midterm about John Updike begins: “John Updike is not a writer. This may be a shock to some of you who are familiar with some of his 20+ books, but I am going to have to deny him that title. He uses letters only to transcend words and builds passages and sentences[,] putting them on paper as a painter would but swipe a single stroke from his brush on the canvas.”

It only gets worse from there. Much worse. And I was one of the good ones.

Is it any wonder that he was bitter? Is it any wonder that he couldn’t constrain a desire to be elsewhere, to do better?

People believed him to be so cantankerous, so curmudgeonly that he became known as “Dr. Saltzman, That Teacher at Southern Who Hates Everything.”

It wasn’t a nickname he deserved, but few would argue that it wasn’t earned.

And yet, the line that stings the most from Solve for X is from an essay called “Because I Said So,” which is a meditation on arrogance. In this essay, Saltzman writes, “And how about the one about the writer who creates a fan page for himself on the Web, complete with prospective dust jacket photos (judiciously lit and artfully posed) even before he gets a book contract?”

A blog is hardly a fan page, I realize, but a sudden rush of guilt surged through me when I read this line. It was as if he reached through space and time and smacked me hard across the cheek with one of his meaty palms. Am I cheating? Am I ungrateful? Would I be so critical if he were able to respond? Most of all, would he approve, and why, after all these years, do I yearn for his approval anyway?

I wonder sometimes how much his influence prevented me from more vigorously pursuing a teaching career myself. For the longest time, that was the idea: undergrad, grad, PhD, then teach. Like Saltzman, like my own dad. The company line says that abandoning the PhD had more to do with my own father than it had to do with Dr. Saltzman. I am an American, after all. I’m supposed to surpass my father, not become him. And plenty of evidence exists that I have been trying to do just that ever since I parted with the path that he chose for me. Before he retired, my dad was a theater director. I write plays. It doesn’t take Freud to figure that one out.

But it wasn’t my own father whose voice I couldn’t get out of my head when I was in front of the class, teaching a syllabus that looked suspiciously like Dr. Saltzman’s Contemporary American Fiction course from years ago. My class was called “Recent Popular Fiction,” but that only because the department believed more people would enroll in “Recent Popular” than “Contemporary American.” But don’t let that fool you. It was the same class. I was just the substitute.

I insisted on circling up the desks. I listened impatiently, tapped my foot, took over after the freshmen had floundered long enough. If a discussion wasn’t going in such a way that I could work in one of his decades-old insights, I would steer it so it would. I even dressed like him: khakis and a blue button-down shirt, loafers. On more than one occasion, I’d contort my mouth like he did, point demonstratively to the page with an albeit less-fleshy finger but with my hand nonetheless cocked in the same way that he cocked his: the wrist farther away from the body than the finger with which I/he was pointing.

I’d be in the middle of class, in the middle of a lecture that was at least half not my own—at least—and I’d think, Who am I? Whose voice is this? Am I teaching or acting? And if I’m acting, who am I acting for? For whom are you babysitting?

I did not keep my one o’clock. I told my manager I wasn’t feeling well, rescheduled the meeting, and left for the day. “You don’t have a job,” Saltzman was fond of saying. “The job has you.” I’ve used that line several times myself. I’ve claimed it as my own.

I was working in Lower Manhattan at the time, on the 22nd floor of a building directly across the street from Ground Zero. Vendors were selling glossy photos of 9/11, the planes flaming brilliantly into the buildings that once provided shade where I now stood. I headed south on Church Street, past a deli that had good pastrami. Saltzman had often complained about the lack of a decent deli in Joplin. A deli and jazz. “I mean a real deli,” the kid from Chicago would say. “You know?”

I passed the teenagers, newly dismissed from school, their daily lessons vaporized by the ether of hormones. I continued south. Walked and walked and walked until I could walk no farther. New York Harbor. The southernmost tip of the island. Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island. I wanted to name Jonah “Ellis.” Leu preferred “Jonah.” Staten Island Ferry. Jersey.

The irony is not lost on me. Toiling away on my own lyrical essay. Using him as my raw material. Some might even say disparaging the dead. I don’t think so, but I see the point. I’m the least reliable person to answer that one.

I sat down on a bench. I had a book in my hand. I didn’t remember picking it up. Always carrying a book with me. It’s a habit I developed years and years ago, back when I was an undergraduate at Missouri Southern.


I’ve stayed in touch with a number of my professors from those undergraduate days. My advisor throughout those years has remained a good friend. He visited the city last year with his wife and daughter. We had lunch in our neighborhood. I was in his class when his daughter was born. She started college last year.

Dr. Denniston, the Shakespeare professor who played the role better than Olivier played Hamlet, he recently friended me on Facebook. I don’t know if that’s a win for Facebook or a loss for Shakespeare.

Leu and I stayed in better contact with Joy’s ex-husband than we did with Joy, not out of any sense of taking sides, but that’s just the way life broke. He’s in Pennsylvania now. We almost went to Jeremy’s bar mitzvah but backed out at the last minute. Jonah was due soon, and we were watching our money. Not the best reason, I know. We made vague plans to meet with Jeremy again when he and his dad came to the city for the U.S. Open, but that, too, never developed. Jeremy’s dad is remarried now with a young son of his own named Jonah. We knew but had forgotten. We agreed that it probably wouldn’t have made a difference. Sometimes I think of him and his new life and Joy and hers. I wonder if she thinks it was worth it. I know that’s unfair, but I do.

We last heard from Joy when Leuinda was pregnant with Jonah. She responded in the comments section of a blog we had started. There was an ultrasound photo of Jonah at 12 weeks. “Well, this is beautiful, obviously,” she had written.

I say that was the last we heard from her, but the truth is that Joy and I exchanged several emails over the past month in regards to this essay. I invited her look at any early draft. I figured I owed her that much anyway. She’s been exceedingly supportive, even about the things that I thought might strike a nerve. She’s torn between filling in some of the gaps and letting them stand. For example, she knows the true identities of “EMS” and “WHG.” My guesses were wrong, though when she revealed them to me my first thought was “Of course.” I’ve probably got plenty of other things wrong too, but correct matters less to me than accurate. My favorite of her notes is “if there’s some way for you to include his great 3-pt. shot in there….?” Sure, Joy. I can do that.

I last heard from Dr. Saltzman directly in July 2005. By that time, I had abandoned the PhD for an MFA in Playwriting, a move that, for better or worse, no longer had me wondering whose voice was in my head when I was in front of the class. The writing program was a grueling one, and I read very little for pleasure during those two years. After graduation, I was starved for fiction, ravenous for novels, and even hungrier to share what I had been reading with someone, so I dropped him a line. The email was called “Message from an Old Student and Friend.” It begins, “Hello, Dr. Saltzman. Kirby Fields calling, here. I'm sure this message feels as if it is coming from out of nowhere, and I suppose it is, but you have been on my mind.” From there I catch him up on what I had been reading and where it had taken me. Jonathans begetting Jonathans: Franzen, Lethem, Safran Foer. I then say, “Anyway, the point of this fairly rambling (and name-dropping) e-mail is that your Contemporary American Fiction class set me on this course over 10 years ago. I do believe I bend in this direction anyway, but you were certainly a profound influence. I guess the point, finally, is that the course lasted a semester, but what you inspired has lasted a lifetime.” I again express my admiration for Objects and Empathy before inquiring if anything new is on the horizon and wishing him well.

Twenty-four hours later, he responded:

Great to hear from you, Kirby, and I'm glad to hear that English 350 continues to percolate up into your consciousness (or is it compost down?). You may be interested to hear that I’m teaching a course entirely devoted to DeLillo this coming fall for our recently established Senior Seminar. As for my own reading list of late, I've read some British fare—The Line of Beauty, Money, and Saturday—and I’m currently in the midst of Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall. Some American things I've enjoyed recently include O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, Norman’s The Bird Artist, and Wigins’s Evidence of Things Unseen. Always on the lookout for teachable, classworthy texts, which means I get to write every purchase off.

“Best of all, and relevant to your kind interest, my new collection of essays, entitled Nearer, should be out by the end of the summer from Parlor Press, so you and literally tens of others can check for it on line in a month or so. I have two other collections currently being seriously considered (read: looked at skeptically when they get around
to it), so the writing career is going full throttle, or as full throttle as a Honda Civic gets, at any rate.

“Keep in touch, Kirby. Hope all goes well both on and off the page.

“Best always,



I don’t know that we have come to terms yet with how to reconcile death and the digital age. Or at least I know that I haven’t, anyway. Sure, I’ve stumbled upon the odd Facebook memorial page—and they can be rather odd—but, thankfully, those whom I’ve lost haven’t had much of a cyberlife. Grandma and Grandpa had a rotary phone. What will happen when the generations that live more and more online pass, yet their status updates, their likes, and their blogs live on? I don’t know about a whole new layer of grief—Kubler-Ross won’t need a rewrite—but I do know that those of us who are left behind might want to prepare ourselves for reminders that appear as unbidden as a pop-up window.

Dr. Saltzman did not have a Facebook page, though one now exists in his memory. He did not post videos on YouTube from his book signings at the local Hasting’s. He never tweeted, though I would love to have seen what he could have done with 140 characters. He did, however, have a personalized page on There’s a bio, a picture that serves as the author photo from his books, taken by the same man who photographed our wedding, by the way. The text is pretty standard fare: “I am a Professor of English at Missouri Southern State University and the author of ten books of literary nonfiction and contemporary literary criticism….”

What follows, however, is anything but standard and is more revealing about the man than any quote or photograph or link that masquerades as true insight nowadays. What follows is a Wishlist, some 40 items long, of books that Dr. Saltzman added between January 2005 and December 2007. He died in January 2008. Presumably, the list is for people who would like to buy him a gift or, perhaps, he used it as a reading version of a Netflix queue for himself. Whatever the purpose of the list, I counted it a legitimate find, the top of something below the surface that held the promise of so much more. Looking it over, I felt a little invasive, but not so much that I didn’t pore over all 40 titles.

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, is on there. Leuinda has that one. I bought it for her after our most recent trip to Glacier National Park in an effort to help her forget that she is surrounded by concrete. A book by Jonathan Lethem, the title of which I don’t recognize. The Brooklyn Follies, by Paul Auster, available at the time, used, for one penny. And then there’s a slew of stuff I would never have heard of otherwise, which couldn’t have been more appropriate: Like You’d Understand, Anyway: Stories, by Jim Shepard; Curves and Angles: Poems, by Brad Leithauser; Cheap Follies: the Pleasure of Urban Decay, with Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer; Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, by Elizabeth Little; and this, which sounds like I’m making it up but I swear I’m not, I swear: 1001 Books to Read before You Die.

I feel his loss most acutely when I read a new release that I know he would have enjoyed. Part of me feels guilty, because I know he would have gotten more out of it than I do. He would have found ways in, forged connections, discovered the means to make something new.

And that, for me, is the hardest part: all of those books that remain unread.