Don’t Look at Me, a new novel by Charles Holdefer, reviewed by Jonathan Harrington

Charles Holdefer has lived in Europe for over forty years, mostly in France and Belgium, yet his fiction most often returns him to his native Midwestern U.S. In his latest novel, Don’t Look at Me, the main character is a six-foot nine-inch ex-basketball star and Masters’ student in Literature named Holly Winegarten. Holdefer, who is mainly a satirist, is more subdued here but he is still a master of the dry zinger that makes you laugh out loud after the short delay it takes for you to “get it.”

But here his main character is not played for laughs. She is a shy young woman dealing with life in a Midwestern university sometimes bitterly called Grainball U. Holly has a secret she has gleaned from the Archives of the Special Collections Department of the university library where she works part-time. She has discovered letters allegedly written by Emily Dickinson, which expose an erotic side of the timid Belle of Amherst that few would recognize. The letters reveal a secret, intimate relationship between the shy poet and an Irish immigrant of which the literary world has been hitherto unaware. It is a historical fact that an Irish immigrant was paid to serve as a Union soldier in place of Dickinson’s brother. A somewhat common arrangement for wealthy families during the Civil War. But the rest of the story is purely the product of the author’s fertile imagination.

Holly Winegarten feels a profound connection to the reclusive Emily Dickinson since Holly has been mocked for her height for most of her life and shines only on the court (from which she has been sidelined due to injury). She also feels protective of the image of the withdrawn Emily. On this intriguing premise Holdefer creates an academic novel unlike any other including semiotics, edible panties, academic betrayal, petty back-stabbing, and other niceties of higher education. But a list does not do justice to this brilliantly compassionate sendup.

As a timid graduate student, Holly confides in a creepy faculty member whose interest in Holly does not appear to be entirely innocent. Holly naively trusts the professor and shares her secret discovery. This same odious Philip Post runs to the leading Dickinson scholar in the department and reveals Holly’s secret discovery in order to curry favor with a senior faculty member. Holly is devastated by this betrayal of confidence. She is soon swept aside as others take credit for this literary bombshell. Whereas Holly identifies deeply with Emily Dickinson, the academics that push Holly aside and see her discovery as a career advancing ticket to furthering their own prestige, padding their resumes, publishing papers, and winning praise from their fellow Dickinson specialists.

Holdefer does an admirable job plumbing the mind of a young female graduate student. After her initial shock, Holly fights back furiously for her equal recognition in the unearthing of the letters. With the help of an alcoholic oddball professor in the department, who has also been sidelined in the academic scrimmage, they set off to a conference in Chicago to set the record straight. Holly has no wish to gain recognition for herself nor to capitalize on her discovery. Instead she wishes to save Emily Dickinson from humiliation by the literary vultures who are circling the poet’s corpse. The showdown at the academic conference makes for some humorous moments but in reality it does more to portray just how vicious the world of the academy can be.

The title, Don’t Look at Me, echoes the sentiments of Holly who has been viewed as a freak because of her size. She has endured such schoolyard taunts as:

Can you see my house from up there? And Look! It’s Queen Kong.

Knowing what it’s like to be seen as different, she in turn wishes to shield the memory of the reclusive and eccentric Emily Dickinson from the leering gaze of ruthlessly ambitious scholars who want very much for others to look at them. The title can also be read as an ironic commentary on the Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter culture wherein so many people are desperate for attention no matter what the cost. Like children throwing tantrums it seems some people will exaggerate, insult, scream, and go to whatever lengths it takes to gain attention (minus holding their breaths until they pass out which might be a relief to the rest of us). “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” they shriek. Holly Winegarten seeks no such attention. And Emily Dickinson published only 10 of her nearly 1,800 poems in her lifetime.

For a novel of this kind there is considerable suspense here and many will find this intriguing narrative to be a page-turner. With the climax of the novel being a literary conference one would not expect much drama. But the ending is thrilling. Even though a fracture has long ago taken Holly off the basketball court we still find ourselves cheering for her as she ducks and weaves her way through the academic maze, outmaneuvering the scholars on their own home court.

Charles Holdefer, author of numerous novels, story collections, essays, and academic tracts, furthers his reputation as one of America’s wittiest and most inventive writers. It may be, in fact, that his years of exile have sharpened his vision of American life as he once again lovingly lampoons some of the most toxic elements of American culture.

Don’t Look at Me by Charles Holdefer is a slam-dunk.

Don’t Look at Me, by Charles Holdefer. Montclair, New Jersey: Sagging Meniscus Press, October 2022. 282 pages. $21.95, paper.

Jonathan Harrington lives in Yucatán, Mexico. His latest full-length book of poems is Lift Up the Stone: The Gospel According to Jonathan. He has also published five chapbooks of poems, and his poetry has appeared in publications throughout the world. In addition to fifteen books (novels, essays, short stories, and poetry) Jonathan has published nonfiction in everything from The New York Times to Metro Magazine. He received a MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1983. Most recently, Jonathan has been translating poems by various poets writing in the Maya language. His translation of Feliciano Sanchez Chan’s book, Seven Dreams, appeared from New Native Press. His translation of Three Sad Songs of the Maya Woman by Briceida Cuevas Cob was published by Ofi Press in Mexico City. His translation of Jose Díaz Bolio’s book (published in 1939) was published by Area Maya Editorial. In 2021 he was awarded the International Medal of Art and Culture from Mexico. He is a regular reviewer for the Beltway Poetry Quarterly in Washington, D.C.

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