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At the middle passage: Local author's 1951 strikingly similar to 1968 and to today

Editor’s note: This column by Walt Mills was originally published in the Centre Daily Times on Oct. 12, 2002.

It was the summer of 1968 and I was just out of high school when Thomas Rogers published “The Pursuit of Happiness.” A year later, when it came out in paperback, I picked up a copy.

By then I was beginning my sophomore year at Old Dominion University, the Vietnam War was at its height and American society seemed to be fracturing like a smashed mirror.

There were not many models for a 19-year-old to examine to make any sense of the strangeness that had overtaken the country.

“The Pursuit of Happiness,” a novel about a young man’s attempt to take his happiness into his own hands despite the powerful social forces against him, was one of our few literary models. I read it eagerly and passed it around among my friends as we waited for the draft notice to fall through our mail slot. Like the novel's hero, we, too, felt our lives and happiness were in the hands of an indifferent, even hostile bureaucracy. Thirty years later I have just finished reading Thomas Rogers’ latest novel. Once again the main character is a young man in the pursuit of happiness, this time a happiness based on a philosophy of unqualified love. I wanted to talk to the author about the book and, as he lives in State College, he invited me to stop in for a drink.

“Jerry Engels” is set on the Penn State campus and in the fraternity houses and student apartments in the winter of 1951. As I drove through the neighborhood south of campus to the Rogers’ home, little seemed to have changed in the intervening 50 years. It was a fall football afternoon, and as I parked on Hetzel Street, a roar went up from inside a nearby fraternity house as Penn State scored a go-ahead touchdown against Wisconsin. In the novel, the Korean War is in the background. In my time, Vietnam was the immediate threat. Today, a war in the Middle East seems nearly inevitable. The more things change, the more they stay the same, unfortunately.

As I walked up the block to the Rogers’ door, I could not help wondering what the young men shouting in the fraternity houses would think of this novel if I could drag them away from television long enough for them to read it.

Would they sympathize with Jerry Engels, failing out of college, involved with an older woman, disappointing his parents, disagreeing with his professors? Would they recognize themselves in the fraternity types of a different era? Thomas Rogers is now in his middle 70s, quite tall and youthful, friendly and hospitable. Tom fixed me a remarkable martini that I carried into his study, a comfortable, book-lined room. After a lifetime spent writing and teaching, remarks about books and authors enliven Tom Rogers' conversation.

“Jerry Engels” is the author's fourth novel, and one he spent 15 years writing and revising.

“I am not a fast writer,” he told me. “I revise and revise.”

For a project to which he has devoted such time, he seems unbothered that none of the major American publishers accepted the book. Instead, “Jerry Engels” is being translated into French and published by the French house Gallimand. Tom’s daughter Susan also prepared the novel for self-publication through the print-on-demand publisher Xlibris. The book can be ordered online or found locally at Webster's Bookstore.

On the sidewalk the cheers were still floating out from the frat houses. My spirits felt buoyed. It struck me that even in the broken world we live in, there are still signs of civility and sanity, and in one novel, at least, a model of unqualified love. Walt Mills can be reached by e-mail at wmills@vicon.net or by mail at P.O. Box 174, Spring Mills.

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