The Elderberry Statement

by Paul Hond
Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life
By James S. Kunen
Lyons Press, 245 pages, $24.95
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As he teaches, Kunen reports that “I’m gaining an awareness of my own language.” He must have had a similar reaction crafting euphemisms for Keywords, but here the engagement is positive, the learning difficult and alive. The quirks of English, seen through the eyes of his students, become riddles that Kunen must solve with clever pedagogical ploys. Kunen finds all this fulfilling but also plunges periodically into depression over his small, unheralded life — feelings that vanish the instant he returns to the classroom.

Diary of a Company Man, in its empathy, its cynical but tender social outlook, and its diaristic device, can read as a bookend to The Strawberry Statement. Coming more than forty years later, it is inevitably a darker, less mannered, more hardheaded book. Kunen’s wisdom and perceptions flow as ever from his bell-clear prose, and his elemental sweetness imbues even his crankiest moments with likability. In a characteristic passage, he writes, “I love my students, and I love loving them, and I love their loving me — or, should I say, the character I play at the front of the classroom — funny, engaging, patient, kind — nothing like I am the rest of the day and night.”

If Kunen, cast out from the whale’s belly, is rising to a new purpose, then a conversation about Jonah that Kunen had with a friend in the Time Inc. cafeteria back in November 2000 takes on a prophetic glimmer.

“I would assume that being in the whale’s belly is a metaphor for the quiescent period of the hero,” the friend tells Kunen. “There are many heroic tales in which the hero gives up his crusade and leads a domestic life, but then a new cause arises and he picks up his sword and crusades again.”

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