- Silly Putty
I write about these events many years after their occurrence. They concern one man but clarify a squalid and unavowed aspect of my life. I write about Oliver Keane, betrayed by fame and my own failure to nudge destiny after he departed.
Keane was my transubstantial father, erudite and perverse. Women adored him with a raw look in their eyes. A letter addressed to him simply as Dionysus in America reached him at Brampton College, where he taught. That was during the sixties, when Esalen flourished, Leary clowned, Ginsberg howled. He knew the literary figures of his time, sparred with Mailer, and smoked pot with Kerouac. All that was before someone fired a sawed-off shotgun point blank in his face.
Perhaps that's why I can't recall Oliver's features, an irony he would have savored since he spent his career praising the "polymorphous perverse life of the body." He was tall, yes, with a thin, salt-and-pepper goatee and a polio-stricken arm—that much I remember. And his saturnine face could be called handsome if you overlooked its heavy, tellurian sadness. But his features have faded into time—they never bore any resemblance to those of my real father anyway.
In Cairo, I grew up in a haphazard villa overlooking the Nile. My father owned a library of many volumes bound in buckram and morocco, which he never read. Absorbed by his thwarted political career, he took down books at random and returned them in the wrong place. I was bookish, plundered his shelves when Mother looked the other way—"chéri, you'll ruin your eyes"—and squatting in quiet corners of the house, avidly read about the heroes of myth and romance. I was ambitious—inordinately, my parents hinted—and stories of high deeds gave my ambition scope. But paternal neglect—perhaps just vagueness of intent—had fed my illusions and left me quirkily naive. [End Page 164]
I knew no people of genuine fame in Egypt except the singer Umm Kulsum, a second cousin who sometimes visited my mother, whiling away an hour with tea and sweet loucoom. Hollywood stars shone from another galaxy with a flickering light, a shade spurious. Later, when I came to America to study—I studied and stayed—I told myself: mold yourself now to a higher purpose. I sought intellectual heroes, not matinee idols, to vindicate . . . what? My own fecklessness?
With a stellar faculty, Brampton was among the elite colleges of America. I was stunned when they overed me a job and didn't know why they did, except that I ran the marathon and the dean was a resolute runner. (He interviewed me while we jogged across several rock-strewn fields.) Later, I discovered he wanted someone foreign-born to "enrich the mix" of his school. I would have thought Oliver Keane enriched enough his mix.
From the start, I sought Keane, not like a needle seeking true north but like an errant pinball searching for the jackpot.
Oliver's enemies—they were legion—said he was a wounded man: look at his withered arm. But I doubt that even the OSS, which he brilliantly served during the Second World War, could decipher the man. Rumors clung to him like wet, muddy leaves: rumors about his drunken Irish father, his mestiza Guatemalan mother, his early years scarred by poverty and abuse. A scholarship had taken the prodigy to Cambridge University. There, young Oliver flaunted his scorn for local icons, including the Cambridge Blues, the Goldie Boathouse, and the River Cam itself.
At Brampton, Oliver was known to teach by provocation. At the end of his lectures, he would look balefully at his students and say, "You must be reborn, you rats." True, he had taken a Double First in classics and history. But did that qualify him to impersonate Calvin, and Nietzsche? Still, everyone agreed that Keane could project his charisma to the last row of any auditorium; his low, indigo voice kept everyone entranced.
For reasons I understood only late, Oliver took me under his batlike wing. I enjoyed sharing with him the forbidden fruits of knowledge but did...