Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #12, Winter 2004-2005]


Eva Augustin Rumpf
PROT U is a satiric novel set on a contemporary university campus in Texas. The story unfolds over the course of one outrageous year at fictional Protestant University of the South, from the start of classes and Rush week in August to graduation in May. This is a year when the serenity of the campus is shattered, as administrative control stifles student freedom of expression, mediocrity buries academic excellence and self interest battles justice.

The novel's reluctant hero is senior Mike Carter, a hard-working commuter student and editor of the campus newspaper, who just wants to graduate and get a good job. But his investigative instincts are sparked when he uncovers a costly secret plan underway on the campus and reveals it in the student newspaper. The administration cracks down on the paper, and Mike is faced with the agonizing choice of compromising his journalistic principles and losing the admiration of protégé Jenny Lofton, or defying the administration and jeopardizing his carefully planned future.

Mike's adviser, journalism assistant professor Angela Goodwin, is an idealist who wants to inspire students, champion truth and always do the right thing. This would be a lot easier to do if she didn't have to worry about getting tenure, which requires kissing up to the "good ole boys" and keeping Mike in line.

Excerpt from Chapter Five: December

"Jerome, I have asked you not to call me anymore. It's over. Why can't you accept that?...Yes, I'll be home for Christmas. No, I don't want to see you ... Look, I've got to go. I have work to do. Good-bye."

Angela slammed the phone down and sat with her elbows on the desk and her head in her hands, trying to calm herself. He'd been calling her several times a month now, whenever he was drunk or stoned. He always started out the same way, in that deep, sensual voice of his. Hey, baby. Why ain't you here with me? And then, When you comin' back? You know you need me.

More than the annoyance and interruption the calls engendered, they produced a tidal wave of memories that swept Angela back to Chicago -- to smoky rooms and cool jazz and passionate nights and the roar of the "el" train and the thrilling freefall of surrender. After three years of living with Jerome and making excuses to her parents, Angela gradually became disgusted with her worthless existence. It took months of struggle to break away and get her life back on track, finishing her degree, finding a job and moving to this alien country where she knew no one. She couldn't let the memories pull her back.

Angela's office door was closed, but when she heard the knock, she looked up and saw Mike's face through the glass panel in the door. She beckoned him to come in and managed to suppress her tumult and greet him with a smile.

"Hi, Mike. Have a seat. How did exams go?"

"OK, I guess. The statistics one was pretty tough. Think I squeaked by with a C, though. I'm just glad it's over."

"Good for you. How's everything else? I mean as far as the paper goes. Any reaction to the redevelopment story?"

"Not much. Oh, we got a few e-mails from students calling us communists or pawns of the protestors. And a letter from Councilman Boodle saying we were wrong and the project would be good for everybody. The woman leading the protest called to thank us. That was about it."

Angela was silent for a moment, as her gaze dropped to the floor. When she looked at Mike again, her expression had turned serious.

"Mike, I got a call from the dean this morning. He said Harken Hall and the trustees are upset about the stories and the editorial. They say you've presented a slanted picture."

"No way! I interviewed Weeken himself. And I tried to talk to Boodle, but that jerk wouldn't see me. Same with Lynch."

"I know. But Lynch is pissed. When you come back in January, the dean wants you to do a positive story on the project and its benefits. He said the PR office would give you all the information you need and quotes from Lynch and Weeken. And he wants another editorial apologizing for the mistakes in the one you wrote this week."

"What? That's bullshit! No respectable journalist would do that."

"Mike, I agree with you. I'm just telling you what he said. I'm not saying you should do it. But you have to remember that you are still a student, and they have the control. They could make things really tough for you. It's my duty to make you aware of the consequences of going against them, but deciding what to do is up to you."

"What could they do? Shut down the paper? Keep me from graduating?"

"I wouldn't put anything past them."

"Isn't there anything you can do? You're the paper's adviser."

Angela knew this was coming, and Mike's words were a punch to her stomach. What good was she to him now? She felt helpless and worthless. She softened her tone.

"Mike, I've essentially been ordered to rein you in. I won't do that. But I don't have the power to hold them off. All I can do now is support your decision. Please think about it over the break. As soon as everybody's back, you can call a meeting of the staff and get their input."

They sat in silence for a few moments.

"Yeah, I'll do that." Mike lifted himself slowly from the chair, and Angela could see he carried the added weight of this new burden. She wanted to tell him not to worry, that everything would turn out OK. But that would be a lie.

"I'll be in Chicago for two weeks visiting my family, and I'll call you when I get back. Try to have a merry Christmas."

"R...r...r...ight. You too. See you next year." He attempted a smile and raised his hand in a weak wave as he left her office. To Angela it felt more like a gesture of dismissal.

She watched Mike go and wondered what he would do. And what she would do. If he defied the order, how far was she willing to go to support him? Far enough to risk the tenure and promotion she coveted?


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Eva Augustin Rumpf is a former reporter, university journalism instructor and student media adviser. Her articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines around the country, and she is co-author of a self-help book on divorce. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband. PROT U is her first novel.

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