For those inclined to take a weekend break from the tedium of Catholic natural law moral philosophy, right-wing ethno-racio-sexuo-politics, and the existential counterspin of climate change, please consider Calvin’s Ghost, an old-fashioned and virtuous Protestant novel, set in bucolic campus settings in the latter decades of the 20th century. I’ll post 2 new chapters each weekend. Please click here for more information.
Calvin’s Ghost is an American tragedy about grief and brokenness that leads us ever more deeply into the submerged and darkened heart of a native son.
When Eli Wheeler arrives as a newly minted professor on the campus of Tillamook State University in Portland, Oregon in 1991, his mask of self-assurance conceals a fractured past, a pretzeled braid of pain and loss. Son of Tobias Wheeler, the nation’s most acclaimed scholar of the American slave abolition movement, Eli’s subversive vision of American slavery lays bare the deeply personal roots of his struggle with his father.
Amidst the dramatic reverberations of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992, Eli navigates shifting and uncertain landscapes of race and identity in his classes, the claims upon his conscience of the mysterious engineering student, Shahid al-Haqq, and the devious machinations of Dean James Pritchard.
Eli finds both solace and new forms of enlightenment from his forays to Portland’s Rose City Race Track with Harry Hamish, the irreverent associate dean at T. State who introduces Eli to the mysteries of horseracing, a universe where reality bends, where Eli’s past merges with his present, where his lies crack apart his truths.
Calvin’s Ghost intermingles colorful, picaresque characters and quotidian moments of grace and folly with themes of race and identity, innocence and guilt, and the heavy weave of the past upon our souls. Ultimately, Calvin’s Ghost asks of Eli (and all of us) the same haunting question God poses to Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
I an’ Satan had a race,
I an’ Satan had a race,
Win de race agin de course.
Satan tell me to my face
He will break my kingdom down.
Jesus whisper in my heart
He will build ’em up again.
Satan mount de iron grey;
Ride half way to Pilot-Bar.
Jesus mount de milk-white horse.
Say you cheat my fader children.
Say you cheat ’em out of glory.
Trouble like a gloomy cloud
Gader dick an’ tunder loud.
– Slave Songs of the United States (A. Simpson & Co., 1867)
The Magnus Effect refers to the generation of a sidewise force on a spinning cylindrical or spherical solid immersed in a fluid (liquid or gas) when there is relative motion between the spinning body and the fluid. Named after the German physicist and chemist H.G. Magnus, who first (1853) experimentally investigated the effect, it is responsible for the “curve” of a served tennis ball or a driven golf ball and affects the trajectory of a spinning artillery shell.
– Magnus Effect (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006)
In the greyly dawning aftermath of the attack upon the racetrack and the bridge, a sputtering police boat, prow high and facing west, hovered just off the western bank of the Willamette, perhaps 500 yards north of the bridge pilings. While public attention focused on the rebel hosts who occupied the northern regions of Forest Park, the police boat patrolled the waters that had been the immediate site of the attack, assessing collateral impacts of the fire and the explosion.At this moment, with an ominously vermillion haze beginning to tin the eastern sky, police on board the boat monitored the investigation of two detectives. Standing ankle-deep in mud rimming the shore, the detectives were hoisting into a heavy-duty polypropylene bag the body of a young adult Caucasian male that under cover of darkness had floated facedown into this shallow bog – a fen really, stank with cattails and tuberous flowering plants.
The detectives were mindful of the ooze seeping into and stench-inflecting their shoes. They worked with some haste to settle the corpse inside the bag. They zipped it shut and slid into an attached waterproof pouch the contents of the man’s trouser pockets, which included only a sodden leather wallet with no cash but a handful of bank and credit cards. A driver’s license disclosed meager details of the man’s identity: Eli Wheeler, DOB May 23, 1960, six feet tall, 155 pounds, brown hair, blue eyes. A faculty identification card indicating that Eli Wheeler was an assistant professor of Western Culture at Tillamook State University.
One of the detectives unfolded a waterlogged sheet of paper that had also been retrieved from the man’s trouser pockets. He peered at the page with interest. “This is curious, Monte,” the detective drawled. “Seems to be from an old book. Has a strange, pale typeface. From before my time, that’s for sure.” He refolded the page and slipped it into the pouch.
“Everything about this guy’s a puzzle, George” Monte said. He peered north, where the Willamette flowed beneath the gothic spires of the St. John’s Bridge toward its convergence with the Columbia River. “He floated in from the river,” he said. “Six or seven hours ago, from the looks of the skin. But it’s strange the body would beach itself in this bog. It’s a dead pool. The only angle into this part of the river is from the north. Which is downstream and downwind. He would have been fighting the river and the wind to get here. He also comes from the opposite direction of last night’s mayhem. Makes no sense.”
Monte signaled the police boat, which idled a bit closer to shore, escaping the chop. The detectives lifted the body bag on to their utility dinghy. The two men clambered into the dinghy alongside the body bag. The dingy sank low in the water. Monte placed one hand on the body bag and the other hand on the tiller and piloted the dinghy through the thinning fog and beyond the muddy shore and tidal wetlands toward open water.
* * *
Collateral impacts, indeed. Is it not the shadowed, glancing collisions in our lives that most matter? The fractional, incidental events and moments that poleaxe us, knock us off our feet, knock us to our knees? Is it not this randomness that skids us sidewise like a rockslide perseverating? Overcoming all matter of ridges and valleys. Extending well beyond the writ of reason and rule.
The question remains. How does a bouncing, skidding, spinning man find his resting spot? We are not humpback whales. We cannot breach ourselves. The child lives. But the innocence dies. That is the spin. The turbulence upon a person when the living runs up against the dying.
Next in Calvin’s Ghost – Chapter 1 / No Man’s Land