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Feature Story / March 4, 2009

1965_vw_split_window_van_5

That was how he died, Professor Robert Beloof, my first mentor: crushed by a hippie van.

In Portland, yet. It was a ridiculous way to die, and Beloof was, let’s face it, a ridiculous man. But it was also a very uncanny, fey manner of death for a Berkeley professor made and broken by the hippie era. You almost want to say something pompous, like “We were all run over by that VW van,” carve that on the headstone of the whole place.

He was one of those bitter loners you meet in every academic hallway. Or rather, you don’t meet them, because they keep their office doors shut, with a big opaque poster over the window. Academics are more restrained these days, trying to be “professional” as the profession dies a genteel death, but back then you could tell the bitter loners by the huge posters they plastered over the scalloped glass of their office doors. The young “professionals” who still went to faculty meetings and had a career just put their office-hours card up, or at most a New Yorker cartoon. A big poster, blotting out the whole window, was a sign meaning “do not disturb, you backstabbing bastards!”

Beloof’s poster was of W. C. Fields squinting at a hand of poker. It meant something or other; those posters always meant something, or tried to. He looked a little like Fields, with his big nose and little eyes. And he was always desperate for attention, one of those starved egos that pine away for credit they never deserved in the first place.

He used to tell us about his epic battle with the powers that be in the department. Some fight at a faculty meeting, “And since then I haven’t gone to a single one.” Everyone had wronged him; his poems were ignored, his colleagues had offended him, and the world was going to Hell.

He summed it all up in a story he told us over and over, about his best collection of poems, “The Children of Venus and Mars.” He’d written it in the mid-1960s, and it was some sort of prediction of the hippie era. “I got it exactly right,” he’d say, shaking his head, sighing. And nobody noticed. I saw the great book later: a little chapbook, refuge of the most obscure poets, bound with colored string. In the days before desktop printing, the difference between real books and vanity press ersatz was painfully, instantly clear. And this was a sad little artifact even by poetry standards.

He didn’t show me that until he considered me one of his protégés. That was the great thing about Beloof, the way he made up for his bitter divorce from his colleagues by cultivating his first-year students. It was a dweebs’ bargain between his starved, swollen ego and a handful of lonely provincials lost in the confusion of UC Berkeley as it slept off its great binge. But Adam Smith would have approved; the exchange served both parties. Beloof got to tell us about his poems that no one else would read, and we got a little attention from a professor. I suppose he was a half-assed version of the 70s guru type.

In fact, he tried to enlist me in the zombie armies of the most fell of those gurus, the great and dire Werner Erhard himself. Remember est? A lot of people would like to pretend they don’t. It was a sort of religious hysteria for agnostic blue-staters, Dale Carnegie Meets the Dalai Lama and starts a fro-yo franchise. It was huge then, as the hippies strove to convert themselves into real-estate moguls.

est (no caps please, we’re coool) promised to make you a more effectual striver while keeping, nay increasing, your spiritual muscles. Weights were just coming back into fashion, Ahnold was a celebrity after the documentary Pumping Iron, and est was like a personal trainer for your fiscal soul. Really the same old Cotton-Mather promises: riches and God’s grace.

Beloof dragged me to one of their guest seminars when I finally messed up too stupidly even for him. He liked me, I suppose, as much as anyone could like a coy, hysterically touchy, pretentious ass like me. Or maybe he didn’t like me but he found me handy; I knew poetry, which was what he taught, and added some literary heft to his clique of lonely first-years. Once when he was ranting about how the public schools were producing nothing but idiots, I dared to mumble coyly, hoping for a pat on the head, “Well but…I went to those schools, Pleasant Hill High, Pleasant Hill Intermediate…does that mean…?”

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27 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. homer  |  March 4th, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    RETURN OF THE KING!

  • 2. fireclown  |  March 4th, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    That might be the most depressing thing I have read in years.

  • 3. doctor k  |  March 4th, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    funny as all hell never stop dolan never ever stop

  • 4. Campbell Roark (yet again)  |  March 4th, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Ah.

    Finally, another piece by Dolan. Why does this Promethean figure continue to languish in obscurity while pallid tone-deaf impressarios (literati castrati) get all the love?

    …as for taking some time to google your mentor’s demise… Dear sir, it took me a year or so to actually get around to scoping your amazon reviews back in double-ought four (love that Kon-tiki!); a year that would seem like a carapace kicked into some fetid corner of my life (and I was 26- all downhill after ’04, right?), had I not spent vast portions of it scouring the web for various crumbs and crusts of your writing…

    Dr. Dolan… Why this is this brilliant brutal bastard not read by everyone? (I want to scream it like Gary Oldman- twitching visage and all- in The Professional: “EVERYONE!!!!!”)

  • 5. John  |  March 4th, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    What the hell is depressing about an overpaid parasite dying before he could become so senile that he would no longer understand who was screwing him and why?

  • 6. Pete  |  March 4th, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Please write more.

  • 7. Chris Connolly  |  March 4th, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Dr Dolan, sometimes your writing is so good it should be illegal. This is great stuff!

  • 8. mechagodzilla  |  March 4th, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    This sounds like it belongs on kuro5hin.

  • 9. totalesturns  |  March 4th, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Yes. We, the wretches of the Internet, demand more Dolan, and some of us especially crave more stories of life at Berkeley during the rise of the theory pods.

  • 10. rustbeltjacobin  |  March 4th, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Just discovered Dolan’s stuff recently. These really are some of the best essays being written nowadays. Was worried about his extended absence from the sight though; after that piece about hitting rock bottom in terms of poverty, I actually felt worried about the guy. Hope there’s lots more headed our way from where this came from.

  • 11. jorge  |  March 4th, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Keep writing Dolan, we could use another book.

  • 12. Rick  |  March 4th, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    I looked up the one instructor-guy who’d really liked my writing back in college. The story in this little newspaper was that he’d shot himself and set his ex-wife’s trailer on fire, in Oregon! It could just be a name-coincidence. But funny stuff!

  • 13. Allen  |  March 4th, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Spot on take on the weird ins and outs of
    the humanities career … right down to the little wall posters, which still do cling to a regardless existence in the yellowed halls of academia world wide even now.

    University professors don’t make mansion money anymore, though. Well most of them don’t, but some bastards still do. Many make about the same as a middle seniority high school teacher, working about twice as much; and that’s when they can get work at all.

    I had an old Shakespeare prof (who was also a published Milton scholar), actually a really weird and funny guy whose other love was football, which I always thought was pleasingly zany. He didn’t get hit by a van, but he did leave academia after twenty years … apparently to attend business school and get a steady job.

  • 14. burbl  |  March 5th, 2009 at 12:24 am

    Yeah! Great Dolan, bitter like any other Exile(d) writer but with a difference (doesn’t taste like shit)

  • 15. captain america  |  March 5th, 2009 at 6:05 am

    “Academics are more restrained these days, trying to be “professional” as the profession dies a genteel death”

    academia is dying? now THAT’S good news.

  • 16. Bardamu  |  March 5th, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Thank you Dr. Dolan. You are peerless. Please carry on and keep writing.

    I wish I had been taught by you.

  • 17. homer  |  March 5th, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    @ Bardamu #16

    If you read even the first pages of PLESANT HELL or his article on ORWELL, you’d have known this already.

  • 18. pnom  |  March 5th, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    I googled my childhood suburb and learnt that the mean old bitch down the street — who used to steal my soccer ball when it fell in her yard — just had her house confiscated by the council and sold. Glorious.

  • 19. captain america  |  March 5th, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    hey homer, got a link for the orwell article?

  • 20. E  |  March 6th, 2009 at 1:30 am

    Dolan is the man. Look here John, have you got a “Stupid” manuscript lying around? Publish that shit. I understand the whole “episodic” Dickens thing, but waiting for the Beast to publish is like watching ice freeze.

  • 21. Bardamu  |  March 6th, 2009 at 3:36 am

    @ Homer #17

    I have read everything I have been able to find, and still sometimes hear his sibilant voice reading his own poetry as I read his articles. I am sincere in the wish that he had been my tutor.

    I hope soon to have the means to send Dr. Dolan a decent cheque.

  • 22. Marc  |  March 6th, 2009 at 9:04 am

    @16
    I was taught by Dolan, back in New Zealand.
    I took two courses from him, and he enriched my life, if I can say that about another man. He taught us poor provincials about Phillip K. Dick, and dis-enamored me of certain rubbish I had been taught in other English classes.

    He may not realize it (and from reading “Pleasant Hell” I’m guessing he doesn’t) but he was pretty fucking legendary among English Lit and Film and Media Studies undergraduates at the time.

  • 23. MIchael  |  March 6th, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Pics or it didn’t happen.

  • 24. aleke  |  March 6th, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Orwell article: http://www.exile.ru/articles/detail.php?ARTICLE_ID=7919&IBLOCK_ID=35 http://exiledonline.com/big-brothers-george-orwell-and-christopher-hitchens-exposed/

  • 25. Amos  |  March 8th, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Speaking as an anti-academic bigot, I must say how nice it is to have my prejudices indulged.

    I read this article with as much pleasure as a Ku Klux Klaner scanning the local crime blotter for stories about niggers shooting up their housing estates. Kudos!

  • 26. Allwell  |  March 10th, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    I think Orwell rocks even as a closet imperialist.

  • 27. Matt Beloof  |  July 20th, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    You need to show some respect for the dead, you stupid bitch-made faggot. I’d pistol-whip you in a perfect world. Eat shit, you unfunny loser.

    Matt BELOOF
    325 Lemmon Way
    Hanford, CA 93230


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