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Percentile is destiny in America.”
So says Walter Kirn, a peerless observer and interpreter of American life, in this whip-smart memoir of his own long strange trip through American education. Working his way up the ladder of standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and class rankings, Kirn launched himself eastward from his rural Minnesota hometown to the ivy-covered campus of Princeton University. There he found himself not in a temple of higher learning so much as an arena for gamesmanship, snobbery, social climbing, ass-kissing, and recreational drug use, where the point of literature classes was to mirror the instructor's critical theories and actual reading of the books under consideration was optional. Just on the other side of the “bell curve's leading edge” loomed a complete psychic collapse.
LOST IN THE MERITOCRACY reckons up the costs of a system where the point is simply to keep accumulating points and never to look back—or within. It's a remarkable book that suggests the first step toward intellectual fulfillment is getting off the treadmill that is the American meritocracy. Every American who has spent years of his or her life there will experience many shocks of recognition while reading Walter Kirn’s sharp, rueful, and often funny book—and likely a sense of liberation at its end.
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WALTER KIRN is a regular reviewer for The New York Times Book Review, and his work appears in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Time, New York, GQ and Esquire. He is the author of six previous works of fiction: My Hard Bargain: Stories, She Needed Me, Thumbsucker, Up in the Air, Mission to America and The Unbinding. Kirn is a graduate of Princeton University and attended Oxford on a scholarship from the Keasby Foundation. He lives in Livingston, Montana.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
On the bus ride down to St. Paul to take the test that will help determine who will get ahead in life, who will stay put, and who will fall behind, a few of my closest buddies seal their fates by opening pint bottles of cherry schnapps the moment we leave the high-school parking lot. My pals hide the liquor under their varsity jackets and monitor the driver's overhead mirror for opportune moments to duck their heads and swig. A girl sees what they're up to, mutters "Morons," and goes back to shading in the tiny ovals in her Scholastic Aptitude Test review book. She dated one of the guys awhile back and seemed amused by his clowning for a time, but lately she's grown serious, ambitious; I've heard she's decided to practice law someday and prosecute companies that pollute the air. When she notices one of the bottles coming my way, she shoots me a look of horror.
"No thanks," I say.
My friends seem wounded by this--aren't we teammates? We play football and baseball together. We hang out. In our high-school class there are only fifteen boys, and every summer before the bugs get bad a bunch of us pitch tents beside the river and cannonball from the cliffs into the current, sometimes splashing down in twos and threes. In the winters some of us work at the same ski hill, selling lift tickets and running chairlifts, and during haying season we form crews to help out the guys who live on farms. We talk as though we'll be together forever, but I've always known better: someday we'll be ranked. We'll be screened and scored and separated. I've known this, it seems, since my first few years in grade school, not in this town, Taylors Falls, but in Marine, a few miles down the valley, when I raised my hand slightly faster than the other kids--and waved it around to make sure the teachers saw me.
A friend pushes the schnapps on me again just as I'm starting to panic about time. The test begins in an hour and a half but we're still twenty minutes from the interstate, stuck behind a lumbering Case tractor in the land of grain silos and barns where my family lives on a small farm that we cultivate, Amish style, with a team of horses, and where I spend my after-school hours splitting firewood, setting fence posts, filling stock tanks, and collecting eggs. It's been my home for several years now, but it's also a stage set, a fantasy, and one that I've never found convincing. My father isn't a farmer, he's a patent lawyer, and our family's excursion into vintage agriculture (like our conversion to Mormonism, which preceded it) is just one more phase in his campaign against convention and conformity that began twelve years ago, when he joined the 3M Corporation in St. Paul and sacrificed, as he saw it, his sacred freedom to the dictates of the herd. He's been rebelling ever since, pursuing a rugged individualism that has involved, at different times, bow hunting, mountain climbing, weight lifting, and now, in his greatest caprice to date, nineteenth-century subsistence living. But those days are almost over, at least for me. I gaze out the bus window at the countryside and wonder what could have drawn my father here other than an instinct for self-punishment. Junk cars up on cinder blocks in scrubby fields, mangled deer on the shoulders of dirt roads, lonely old folks sitting on sagging porches breathing from portable tanks of oxygen. I see myself living in New York someday, in an art-filled apartment with views of vaulting bridges, not mired in this place of wistful rot.
"I already said I don't want any," I say. The guy now holding out the schnapps is named Rolf, a hulking colossus of pale Norwegian gristle who plays center on the Bluejays, our losing football team.
"Afraid you'll catch my germs?" he cracks.
"Everybody who drinks from the school water fountain already has your germs."
"Right. Like you're some perfect Mr. Clean."
"At least I shake off before I zip back up."
Rolf flips me the bird. There's black crud under his fingernails. He works part-time for his uncle's excavation company, and once he learns to run a diesel backhoe he'll have job security for life. Instead of wasting my energy sparring with him, I should be concentrating on the review book like the red-haired boy across from me, the only other A student on the bus. He's a hard kid to get to know, a social ghost, forbidden by his family's harsh religion from singing holiday-related songs and forced by its stringent dietary teachings to live on sack lunches of carrots and slivered almonds. Sometimes I fear he's brighter than I am; he's certainly more studious. He works with his head down, calm and dogged, while I rely on gimmicky maneuvers such as rephrasing teachers' simple questions ("How does racial prejudice contribute to inner-city hopelessness?") into complicated riddles ("Is our conception of 'inner-city hopelessness' perhaps in itself a form of prejudice?") designed to provoke class discussions that I can dominate with my amped-up flash-card-based vocabulary. Do my ploys show intelligence or desperation? Both, I suspect. In me the traits seem fused.
I watch the bottle being passed and I make my final plea.
"Stop it, you guys. Today is a big deal for us."
But they know this already--they just don't like the fact. The SAT isn't a reckoning they asked for. The exam was devised by strangers on the East Coast, a part of the country we associate with stockbrokers, mobsters, and fashion models. The sample questions in the review books (ART : CUBISM : : (A) scenery : play; (B) setting : ring; (C) mustache : face; (D) poem : epic) resemble none we've ever faced. Taylors Falls Public High School is a dump. Grades K through twelve are stuffed into one squat building surrounded by crabgrass ball fields full of gopher holes, and some of our teachers do little but coach sports. They wear their whistles and ball caps at their desks, paging through magazines while we, their students, pass the class hours scribbling in photocopied "workbooks" whose fuzzy type and off-key phrasings ("Among the proud peoples of the Orient . . .") suggest that they haven't been updated for decades.
The St. Paul skyline stands up in the windshield as one of my classmates flings back a shot of schnapps and licks his sticky lips. "Nice little head rush. Try it, Walt. Come on." He holds the bottle by its neck and swings it in front of me like a hypnotist's pocket watch. "Getting thirsty. Getting very thirsty . . ." The numbskulls around him pretend they're going under, drooping their heads and fluttering their eyelids.
"A sip," someone says. "Just one," says someone else.
I shake my head. "I'm sorry. No."
And so I go on to college, and they don't.
Percentile is destiny in America.
Four years after that bus ride to the testing center, I'm slumped on a shabby sofa in the library of a Princeton University eating club, waiting to feel the effects of two black capsules that someone said would help me finish writing my overdue application for a Rhodes Scholarship. I'm chain-smoking, too, and I have been for an hour--Marlboro Lights with their filters twisted off, whose butts I drop into a can of Dr Pepper spiked with Smirnoff vodka. I'm seven pounds lighter than I was in high school but not as trim and perhaps not quite as tall, my center of gravity having sunk closer to chair level. I need glasses, too. I doubt that the cause is too much reading, though; thanks to my flair for academic shortcuts and an impression I've gained from certain professors that the Great Books are not as great as advertised (and may indeed be pernicious instruments of social manipulation and oppression), I've done much less reading here than I expected. No, I blame my dimming vision, as I do my sagging physique and my reliance on chemical pick-me-ups, on a gradual neurological withdrawal from a place that no longer seemed to want me once it decided, by some fluke, to have me.
"You sure you took both of them?" my close friend Adam asks. What's making him wonder is the blank legal pad resting on my lap. I should be writing furiously by now, but instead I'm compulsively clicking my ballpoint pen and nibbling a cold blister on my lower lip.
"Maybe the pills were counterfeit," I say.
"You haven't absorbed them. Your stomach's full from dinner."
"I missed dinner. All I ate was tapioca."
"Tapioca would do it," Adam says.
I trust his theory; he knows his physiology. A Jewish science whiz from the New York suburbs, he ate magic mushrooms one evening, had a vision (matter is not composed of atoms but infinitesimal knots of thought), and switched the next day from premed to English literature. He ought to be reading James Joyce's Dubliners, which he'll be tested on this week, but instead he's conducting an experiment: grinding up Percocet tablets in a soup bowl and trying to smoke the powder through a water pipe. He flicks the wheel of his lighter with a thumb and steadies the flame above the pipe's bronze bowl. When the powder liquifies, browns, and starts to bubble, he sucks up the vapors with a mighty gasp that causes me to hold my breath in sympathy.
I have other comrades in estrangement, way out here on the bell curve's leading edge, where our talent for multiple-choice tests has landed us without even the vaguest survival instructions. Our club isn't one of the rich, exclusive outfits, where the pedigreed children of the Establishment eat chocolate-dipped strawberries off silver trays delivered by black waiters in starched white uniforms, but one that anyone can join, where screwballs and misfits line up with plastic trays for veggie burgers and canned fruit salad. At the moment the club is floundering financially and has fewer than twenty paid-up members, including two religious fanatics who came to Princeton as normal young men, I'm told, but failed for some reason to mix and grew eccentric. Not many months from now, one will interpret a Bible passage too literally and try to pluck out his left eye in penance for some failing he won't disclose. The other ...
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