Robert Grindy's Community College Noir 'Iced' Is Seriously Comic
Iced works as a crime novel, a mystery, a satire set in low-rent academia, and its own movie treatment.
Livingston Pr (University of West Alabama)
Robert Grindy's Iced does not need to aspire to the vaulted epic proportions of the more popular academic novels, though it deserves equal exposure. It's a murder novel, a slightly comic noir featuring a community college instructor whose profile is all too familiar to those who have haunted the halls of this world. Henry Streator has been hovering through the halls of Kickapoo Community College for a decade. Attempts at publishing his own novel have failed. His wife (a former student in his creative writing class) has walked out of his life, taking with her a popular book and potential film adaptation. Streator despises his students and the administration. His one apparent friend, the school's dean Loren Locke, suggests he revive his book idea in order to secure his job. Grindy carefully sets up the premise for his hero: a wife who has walked away, a dead-end job with no room or chance for advancement, hyper-sensitive students, and one in particular whose sudden death reveals to Streator a chance to make something happen.
What works best about this quick crime novel is Grindy's perspective. The mood is seriously comic. Take this rant as Streator drives home. He's thinking about the plot possibilities offered by one of his students, a young man who will soon die unexpectedly and unravel Streator's tale of loss and redemption:
He hated corn. And beans… He hated this goddamn train… He hated his ex-wife for taking the Subaru to her new job in Minnesota and leaving him the Nova… He hated his haircut… By god he hated rainbows.
There's an interesting racial theme in Iced that reflects both the diversity of a community college population and the recurring fact of cultural appropriation. Does Henry Streator have any right to the world and story of the African-American experience? If he adapts the story pitched by Tarvis Conner (who subsequently dies in a car accident) how much of it can he pass off as his own and how long will it be until his secret is revealed?
In the classroom there are issues of racially charged words and their validity, of texts by Flannery O'Connor and others that might not properly speak to a classroom filled with pastor's wives, and teenage lesbian Wiccans. Grindy wisely sets his novel at the end of the 20th century, when issues of political correctness and diversity in the academic canon were strong, but no social media meant no instant dissemination of spoken words or impromptu thoughts that danced to the wrong beat. Iced is smart and knowing in this sense. Grindy's goal is certainly to tell a good story and he understands it can't be done without recreating an academic world where burnt-out cases like Henry Streator shoot themselves in the foot when they stay too long at their jobs without any discernible elevation in status.
Streator is blinded by the definitiveness of this dead-end street. "Despite all his cocky nihilistic posturing, he was now scared. Because I got nowhere else to go… the person he empathized with most in the universe was a pathetic Richard Gere character from the sappiest of all movies."
Iced works as a crime novel, a mystery, a satire set in low-rent academia, and its own movie treatment. We want to watch Henry Streator as he wanders through his town, having to deal with each person he meets (restaurant servers, hospital staff, others) asking if he's still teaching college. We want to meet his friend dean Loren Locke, who was a pal on an equal level when they were coming up, bust since being appointed dean he "…had no time for squash, got fat, and started wearing suspenders and bad ties." We want to meet Derrick Doolin, Streator's former creative writing student who had gone off to make something of himself as a bestselling novelist. He lingers in the background and is scheduled to return by the end of the novel, perhaps the conquering hero but more so the actualization of an alternate life scenario. Doolin is what Streator could have become had the fates been more compassionate.
Streator embraces the late Travis Conner's manuscript, apparently just a shell of an outline in its original state, and embarks on a four month intense writing journey. He teaches his classes, but he's really not there. He types up a letter of resignation from Kickapoo after a literary agent expresses interest in the manuscripts Fate does intervene (as usual) in the twist that gives the impression that the manuscript contained more than a microbe of creative non-fiction.
Ice then wanders into a convoluted subterranean world of prison creative writing programs, estranged families, entrenched (and very rich) high class names in the community, and a maze of dark figures with malevolent intentions. It's at this point that Grindy effectively and comfortably wanders into a world that would fit well in The Wire, Breaking Bad, or Better Call Saul. Where, in less competent hands, this could be formulaic, clumsily shifting gears halfway through from an academic satire to pulp crime noir, Grindy makes it a seamless and compelling transition. He ensures that we want to know how this story will be resolved.
Henry Streator is doomed to be a lone wolf, brooding over lost opportunities, wasting the third act of his life in community college classrooms, grading minor compositions in a benevolent manner so as not to trample any hypersensitive conditions. The one young woman who enters his life as a sort of recuperative angel, "…quick and smart… funny and familiar with Streator… so beautiful… the kind of looks that made mere mortals uncomfortable…" leaves it when he realizes he didn't remember her from his class in 1992. A good woman never stays forever. Crime noir heroes understand that simple truth. We leave Iced satisfied, eager for another chapter in the sorry, predictable life of Henry Streator, who might be the proof that Flannery O'Connor's 1953 short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find", has been wrong all along.