Rich Kid’s Resurrection in Annapolis—A Thought Experiment

Marc Estrin’s newest fiction is titled Et Resurrexit. The title is shared with a chorus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor (H-moll in the original German). A slim text, it begins with a male heir of the Vanderbilts—a young man whose perception of the world is certainly shaped by his family’s wealth—rising from the dead (or not). This possible resurrection is but an invitation to a brief and rather humorous telling of the young man’s life. Throughout the text, he is mostly referred to as Will. His father is the Vanderbilt in the family, while his mother is the daughter of a Jewish delicatessen owner. Her surname is Davidoff. Will’s is hyphenated: Vanderbilt-Davidoff. He is an unusual child in the world he grows up in, maybe even weird. Unusual until he ends up at St. John’s College in Annapolis. This is a college which does not devote its curriculum to preparing young adults for a job, a role in the capitalist technological nightmare we know as modern society. Instead, its pedagogy involves reading, learning and discussing the so-called Great Books, at least that’s what the college catalog states. In other words, there is no football team. The Annapolis campus is located next door to its opposite: the United States Naval Academy.

The conflict between the martial antics of the midshipmen and their leaders and the silly and even absurd clowning of the St. John’s College undergrads is a key part of this story. The conflict stands in for the eternal conflict between the warriors and the poets of history; think Sparta and Athens. The conflict involves brass bands and martial music, chamber music and choirs, a lanky and attractive female gas station attendant and at least one football player playing for the honor (or is it the collective ego?) of the Midshipmen, their mascot Bill the Goat and every admiral who ever served.. There’s also something like love involved.. The battle between the midshipmen and the “Johnnies” is a microcosm of that eternal contest mentioned above played out in a micro-sized town—Annapolis.

Most of Estrin’s novels are in some sense comedies, but not comedic as in a TV sitcom, an Adam Sandler movie or even a Peter Sellers flick. Instead, this comedic element is more like an absurdist take on modern reality with its prejudices, its machines, its weapons, its political philosophies and, I guess, even its ultimate meaninglessness. It’s not Shakespearean, although there are occasional happy endings. Instead, think Ubu Roi by the Frenchman Alfred Jarry or maybe a Brecht comedy. The arrows pointed at the foolishness and arrogance of modern man are direct and even pointed, but their tips produce humor not pain. That comes later, after the reader finishes the book. Although Estrin is a classical music fan, some of his books remind me of a jazz improvisation. There’s a beginning and an end. The middle is charted out with a few chords and time signature. Modalities modify, keys change, notes go here and notes go there; one action creates another. The story is told and so are so many others. It’s not metafiction. It’s jazz fiction. Et Resurrexit is bebop with a vibraphone taking the lead, its melodic hammers as joyous as any wind instrument, but bound by the number and solid nature of the keys. The story is a seemingly simple one. Like those chord charts, the simplicity is superficial. It’s the improvisation that creates the complexities.

As noted previously, Et Resurrexit opens with a brief tale regarding Will Vanderbilt-Davidoff’s absence from the coffin he was supposedly reposed in. I write supposedly because, as it turns out he isn’t inside the coffin. The book ends with that same coffin once again empty. There’s a thought experiment most readers are probably familiar with. It features a cat who belongs to a guy names Schrodinger. The thought experiment itself is what is known as a paradox. The cat may be dead or it may be alive or it may be both alive and dead or dead and alive. That’s the paradox. Perhaps Estrin’s fictional romp through Annapolis with a fictional spoiled but errant heir to a portion of the Vanderbilt estate is his version of the paradox. Is Will Vanderbilt-Davidoff alive or is he dead? Or is he both alive and dead? Or did he somehow succeed in that dream of some humans to disappear without a trace and become someone else? If it’s the latter, does that make the person of Will Vanderbilt-Davidoff dead, alive or both? Read the book and not find out.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com