Like Joseph Heller, E.J. Roller has a fine sense of the absurd. The Catch-22 world she creates in The Alloway Files seethes with the bureaucratic insanity of a city public school system, pointless rules and procedures perpetuated for their own sake, a bleak, darkly humorous landscape against which her protagonist, Ellen Alloway, struggles so as not to sink “all the way” into it, indistinguishable as a drop of water in the ocean.
Roller sardonically describes “the dark gray of the four-lane road, the light gray of the sidewalks, the faded gray of the run-down rowhouses, the rumbling gray of the clouds above, and the ominous gray of the school headquarters behind her.” And Ms. Alloway? “…her brain had already gone as gray as her surroundings.” Employed by the public school system, Ms. Alloway has been banished to the “Temporary Reassignment Room,” for reasons that are unclear, even to her. Like Captain John Yossarian before her, Alloway will nevertheless try to inject a sense of value into this world. (Significantly, the novel is dedicated to “the un-reformed.”)
The trouble is, Alloway disappears from the story almost after she’s introduced. A framing Prologue and Epilogue involving a character named Edward Winterblow, a man cursed with “good luck,” has the same effect of parts of a story missing.
Instead, Roller continues with this fine sense of the ridiculous, evident in the post-modern flatness of character names – Manager Manly (so like Heller’s Major Major), John Doe, Ms. Morose, Creepy McGoo. While John Doe has promised to clear things up for Ms. Alloway, mystified by her “reassignment,” this promise seems to get lost in the onslaught of funhouse-mirror weirdness. Doe, an unqualified office worker, is somehow assigned to take over Ms. Alloway’s class, while she is in detention.
Along the way we meet more characters stuck in their bureaucratic worlds, intent of reforming, re-reforming, un-reforming, re-re-reforming the broken system. There’s Aliyah Deere, City Teacher Union Representative with an alphabet soup of honorary acronyms following her name (SCS, SC, BHCO, JSC, NHSFA) that just gets longer as the novel goes on; Ms. Young, level-one consultant for UCAN edUCAtioN, intent on developing a mnemonic for the most likely pattern of answers on the state-mandated standardized multiple choice test students must take (DACCBCCAAABD –Dog Ate Cat Chips Because Cat Chips Are Almost Always Better Duh); a host of sad teachers from weepy Mr. Howard, who can’t seem to get his resignation request approved, to Ms. Eagleton, who lets a precious poetry text slip through her fingers, to the “dickhead,” Monsieur Richard, a variety of weird administrators, principals and their assistants. The librarian, Ms. Brown, is especially vigilant about lost books, such that she won’t let the most useful or popular ones be taken out so as to maintain her stellar statistics with regard to unreturned books.
Absurdist conversations reminiscent of Joseph Heller, such as the following, abound. Ms. Morose, in her role as Attendance Monitor for the Department of Achievement and Accountability has been on a mission to track down Juan Alamarez, a student whose “absence” has skewed the all-important attendance statistics. The thing is, Juan is an illegal resident who has gone back to Mexico. Ms. Morose pursues him there but is not able to accomplish her mission of expunging his statistical blemish.
Ms. Morose made a phone call.
“He moved to a new city?” asked Mr. Jankins.
“Mexico is not a city, Ms. Morose.”
“A new country then.”
“Do you have his immigration papers?”
“No. He was undocumented. There were no papers to begin with.”
“How did he enroll if there were no papers?”
“He put down his name and address.”
“So there were papers.”
“We had his name and current address.”
“A City address?”
“A City address.”
“So you can find him.”
“He doesn’t live there anymore.”
“You said it was current.”
“It’s not anymore.”
“So you don’t have his current address?”
Since this is an inner city school system, with a predominantly African-American student body, racial tensions between the mostly white middle-class faculty and the students is a theme that gets its share of attention. Sometimes, as in the names of the charter schools, Martin Academy, Luther Academy, and King Academy, this feels heavy-handed, and sometimes the exchanges sound like familiar classroom chaos, teenage hormones run amok and discipline at an all-time low.
The door to another classroom slammed loudly. Ms. Young walked toward the classroom door, calmly, to investigate. Jut as she got to her door, an angry face popped up in the door’s dirty window, an angry finger pointed straight through Ms. Young to Jazmine. “I’MA FUCK THAT BITCH UP!”
“I’MA SHUT YOUR DIRTY-ASS MOUTH!” Jazmine flew past Ms. Young, flung the door open and ran into the hallway.
Dontay yelled, “FIGHT!” The class, on cue, rushed after Jazmine….
To her credit, Ms. Alloway tries the humanizing approach with this young woman, Jazmine Williams, patiently trying to earn her trust and develop her mind, though it does sound a bit condescending and like the cliché of the idealistic teacher (To Sir with Love). The parts about her teaching To Kill a Mockingbird with Jazmine are especially affecting and effective. (But why bother teaching literature, the administrators demand. The students need skills.)
The absurdity and hijinks of The Alloway Files are delightful and entertaining, but even though this is a short novel, it somehow seems the story is too long, too thin, for what it’s about.
I fully expect we’ll be reading more, and better, work from E.J. Roller.
Similar Reads: Doctor Rat by William Kotzwinkle and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller