Wednesday, April 30, 2014

For All Nails #318: Who You Gonna Call?

For All Nails #318: Who You Gonna Call?
By Johnny Pez

Gallivan Hall, Burgoyne University
Burgoyne, Pennsylvania, N.C., CNA
30 April 1952

He paused at the door to his office. There was a note pinned to the door with the words VENKMAN BURN IN HELL scrawled on it. With a sigh, Professor Peter Venkman pulled the note off and fumbled his key into the lock. He told himself that it least it meant that he had succeeded in making people passionate about economics. He had been looking to stir things up when he published his book, and he had clearly succeeded.

Inside was the old oak desk he had inherited from his father, the bookshelves he had acquired over the years, the framed prints on the walls. The desk was piled high with books, notes, paperweights, and trays, all jostling for room with the dactylograph and telephone, and a vase of flowers. There was a smell of old paper, and begonias. He had just seated himself behind the desk when the telephone rang.

After a brief internal debate, he picked up the handset. “Venkman,” he said simply.

“Professor Venkman?” said a female voice on the other end. The accent was distinctly Virginian. “This is Councilman Mason’s office. Can you hold for the Councilman?”

“Certainly,” Venkman said automatically, not quite understanding the conversation. Did he know a Councilman Mason? Could he be a member of the Burgoyne City Council? Then, a moment later, the combination of the accent and the name brought a sudden epiphany. No, not the City Council, the Grand Council. The country’s national legislature.

Venkman was ready when the familiar voice came on the line. “Professor Venkman? This is Richard Mason.”

“Good morning, Councilman,” said Venkman, and he was pleased at the tone of insouciance he was able to bring to the words. As though he routinely accepted phone calls from North American political leaders. “What can I do for you?”

“I was hoping we could talk about your new book,” said Mason. “I’ve just finished it, and I find your ideas intriguing. Perhaps you ought to consider publishing a newsletter.”

“They’re not my ideas, as such,” Venkman said.

“Yes, Professor, you’ve been careful to give proper credit to Mister Morris and Monsieur De Bow. That’s the mark of a true scholar and gentleman, and one of the reasons I think you’re just the man I’m looking for.”

Was Mason saying what Venkman thought he was saying? “Sir, are you offering me a position with your campaign?”

He heard a chuckle from the other man. In his mind’s eye, an image came to him of Mason on the vitavision with his head tilted back, giving just such a chuckle in response to one of Jeffrey Martin’s borderline-rude interview questions. “You’re not a man who believes in beating about the bush, are you Professor?”

Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound. “Councilman, the economics profession is unfortunately oversupplied with people who use words for concealment rather than illumination. As a matter of sheer self-preservation, I’ve had to develop a capacity for cutting through pointless verbosity and getting to the point.”

Another chuckle. “Professor, you make economics sound an awful lot like politics. No, I’m not quite ready to offer you a job, but it is a definite possibility. That’s the reason I’m calling you now, to find out if you’ve got the right sort of, oh, temperament for the job. For example, were you being deliberately provocative when you called your book The Ghost of Lawrence French?”

“To be honest, Councilman, yes I was. Given the state of the world today, and particularly the state of economics, I thought that something provocative was just what was called for.” Venkman shifted in his chair, and glanced out the window. The day was overcast, as it usually was in Burgoyne. In spite of the threatening sky, there were students out in the quadrangle playing an impromptu game of cricket.

“That’s just what I was hoping to hear, Professor Venkman, because I feel the same way myself. Mr. Billington’s devotion to balanced budgets is an admirable thing in the abstract, but I think we need something more to pull us out of the slump we’ve been in since the end of the war. I find your book to be an admirable explication of why that is, and what needs to be done about it.”

“Councilman,” said Venkman cautiously, “I hope you’ll forgive me for saying so, but it sounds to me like you’ve already decided what you want to do, and you’re just using my ideas as a useful way to rationalize it.”

Another chuckle from the Councilman. One of the things Venkman had noticed about Mason was that he wasn’t shy about expressing his emotions. Ever since Owen Galloway started giving his vitavision talks thirty years back, every politician on the national stage had felt the need to curry favor with the voting public by imitating his dull monotone. Even Governor-General Billington mostly kept to the same pattern, with only occasional flashes of dry wit. Mason, by contrast, spoke with conviction, letting his voice and expression show what was in his heart. It seemed to Venkman that the Councilman’s popularity came not so much from what he said, as how he said it. After a generation of Owen Galloway imitations, it was like a breath of fresh air on a stuffy day.

“Well, not so much to rationalize, Professor, as to confirm my own ideas,” said Mason. “I read Mr. Morris’s General Theory myself back in the day, and I found it very convincing. And I was here in Burgoyne back in ’38 and ’39, so I was able to see the policies of your colleague Professor French in action. As you yourself pointed out in your book, the contrast between Mr. Morris’s policies in Britain and Professor French’s here in North America provided an unparalleled opportunity to determine who was right and who was wrong. Mr. Morris was proved right, and Professor French wrong. You say you wish to exorcise Professor French’s ghost from the halls of power here in Burgoyne. I am prepared to do so, and I would very much enjoy your assistance in doing so, if you are willing to provide it.”

Once again, Venkman felt the need to cut to the chase. “You wish me to join your campaign as an economic advisor, then?”

“No, Professor Venkman, I do not.”

Venkman found himself at a loss. “Then, I’m not certain … “

Again, there was that chuckle. “You, Professor, are a man with a talent for clear prose and the pithy phrase, and a knack for explaining the more, shall we say, impenetrable intricacies of economics in a way that the layman can understand. That talent would be wasted in the rough and tumble of a political campaign. What you need, sir, unless I am much mistaken, is a platform from which to speak on the economic issues of the day. And I may have just such a platform from which you might speak. You are familiar, are you not, with Mrs. Pynchon?”

Venkman, of course, was quite familiar with her. “The publisher of the Burgoyne Tribune?”

“The very one,” said Mason. “Mrs. Pynchon’s family, and the Tribune, have long been mainstays of the Liberal Party, and I know for a fact that she would be pleased to offer a weekly column to the author of that notable work of popular economics, The Ghost of Lawrence French.”

“And I would write for your campaign?” Venkman found the idea distasteful.

“You would write on whatever topic happened to seize your fancy, Professor. Have no fears on that score. As long as you maintain the intellectual standards of both the newspaper columnist and the professional economist, you would have free rein.”

As Venkman considered the idea, he could not deny that he found it attractive. There was a dreadful amount of foolishness published in the country’s newspapers and general interest magazines, to say nothing of the vitavision, on the subject of economics. It would be bracing to have the chance to counteract it on a regular basis.

“Very well, Councilman,” he said at last. “You can tell Mrs. Pynchon that if she’s willing to risk it, so am I.”

“Splendid, Professor, just splendid!” Mason enthused. “I’ll inform the dear woman, and she can set the wheels in motion. Oh, and if she should ask what name you have in mind for the column, what should I tell her? Knowing the newspaper business as I do, I suspect that she’ll want to associate it in some way with your book. A spectral theme seems called for.”

Venkman thought about it. “The Exorcist?” he suggested. “That might turn a few heads.”

Mason sounded less than enthusiastic. “If you’ll forgive me, Professor, that strikes me as perhaps a trifle obscure. Apart from the occasional enthusiast for religious history, it would mean little to the general newspaper reader. I also suspect Mrs. Pynchon would find it somewhat lacking in what the journalistic profession calls ‘sock’.”

Sock, eh? Venkman grinned suddenly. “In that case, Councilman, how about The Ghost Buster?”

“Just the thing, Professor,” said Mason with another chuckle. “Just the thing! You may expect to hear from the Tribune in the near future. For now, I must bid you a reluctant farewell.”

“Good-bye, Councilman,” Venkman replied. “And thank you.”

“Oh, no, Professor. Thank you!”

A click, and Mason was gone. Venkman set the phone’s handset on its cradle, and leaned back in his chair. The cricket game was still going on outside.

A newspaper columnist, he thought to himself, and smiled.


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