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  • Written by Ben Dolnick
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  • Zoology
  • Written by Ben Dolnick
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Zoology

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Written by Ben DolnickAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ben Dolnick

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On Sale: May 08, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-38654-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Zoology is the story of Henry Elinsky, a college flunk-out who takes a job at the Central Park Zoo and discovers that becoming an adult takes a lot more than just a weekly paycheck.

Excerpt

This book is about last summer. I'll start before David saved me, though, when I was still living at home. I should have been in school, or in an apartment of my own, or teaching English in a village somewhere with noisy outdoor markets and old women who walked bent under piles of horsehair blankets. Instead I was in Chevy Chase. I slept every night under the same green baseball sheets I'd been sleeping under my entire life, the furnace clanking and chugging behind its door, and woke up every morning to Olive whining to be let in.

I'd started a semester at American--just a twelve-minute drive from home--and I'd been getting three Ds and a C. I kept thinking that someone would warn me if I was really getting myself into trouble, and then they did. When I got home for Thanksgiving Mom handed me a skinny envelope with the AU stamp. There was a letter inside from Dean Popkin telling me to take some time off and come back as a freshman next fall. He'd signed it, Have a restful year.

"Henry," Mom said, reading over my shoulder, "is this a joke?" She sounded like it really might be.

Dad said, "Well, you know what? You may just not be a scholar. There's no shame in that--or else I should be ashamed myself. Fall comes around again, we'll see if you're ready to give it another go. But in the meantime, this is not just going to be time to loaf. Let's get you to work."

So every morning, for all those months at home, I walked with Dad the five minutes up Cumberland to Somerset, my old elementary school. It was like working in a Museum of Me. Here were these same yellow hallways with their same sour-mop smell, and the library with the hard orange carpet and wooden boxes of golf pencils, and the brown tile bathrooms with their squeaking sinks and empty paper towel machines.

And here was Principal Morrow with his pink head and wobbly walk. And mean, round Mrs. Kenner, who used to always say, "Do I come into your living room and put my feet up on the sofa?" (I used to picture her living in our classroom, reading The Book of Knowledge at her desk, making her dinner at the sink where we rinsed the paintbrushes.) And looking small and pale now, here was Mr. Lebby, who had lost half of his left ring finger in a woodshop accident as a kid. He was the only teacher I ever had who picked me out as a favorite--when I was in fifth grade we used to stand around by the coat hooks during recess and talk about the Bullets, my opinions all stolen from Dad and so more important to me than if they'd been mine. The first time he saw me back, standing by the water fountain on the second floor, we had a fumbly hug and then he stood there with wet eyes saying, "Well." But after that what could he really do? By January he and everyone else I used to know just nodded at me in the halls. I peed in the urinals that came up to my knees, and pledged allegiance along with thirty droning voices, and, in a trance of boredom between classes, I held a piece of paper over an air vent to make it float like a magic carpet.

I ate the cafeteria food for lunch. Holding a maroon admit one ticket that could have come off the roll I kept in my desk in third grade, I'd wait in line, having to work not to feel like part of the nervous elementary school nuttiness around me. Seventy-pound boys would prowl, making tough faces, looking to butt or back-butt, and four-foot girls with headbands--they could have been the same girls I'd gone to school with--would either let them in, quiet lawbreakers, or else raise their hands for the lunchroom monitor.

When I was a student there, Mrs. Moore, the gray-toothed lunch lady, would Magic Marker a symbol on the back of one Styrofoam tray each holiday--a heart on Valentine's Day, a clover on St. Patrick's Day, a pumpkin on Halloween--and in the second before you turned your tray over your brain would go quiet. You got to go first in line the next day if you got the marked tray, I think, but the point was the feeling: The whole day turned into a lottery when you knew one of those trays was out there. But Mrs. Moore died of lung cancer when I was in eighth grade (Dad brought home a newsletter with a smiling picture of her on the back, over 1932-1997), and the trays they used now were made of hard brown plastic.

I'd eat the chicken pot pies and tuna melts and square pizzas in the art room, looking out at the kids stampeding around the basketball court, feeling a combination of sleepiness and hopelessness and boredom as particular to school as the smell of uncapped markers. New teachers would sometimes come sit with me, hoping to talk about apartments or what college I'd gone to, but eventually word seemed to get out that I wasn't really one of them. I'd gotten lost in my life, I kept thinking, and now here--like someone lost in the woods--I'd walked right back to where I'd started.

Between classes, when I didn't want to sit with Dad in the teachers' lounge, I'd wander. That dark little staircase between Mrs. Rivini's room and the computer room, where I once saw Teddy Montel kiss Sarah Sylver, dipping her like they were dancing. The Sharing and Caring room, with its posters covered in crinkly plastic and its taped-up beanbag chairs and its boxes and boxes of tissues. I'd run into Mr. Bale, the black turtle-looking janitor who once was in a commercial for the D.C. Lottery, and every time he saw me, every single time, he'd laugh and shake his head.

Dad taught six classes a day, forty-four minutes each, and I was his assistant. The kids called me Mr. Henry, so we'd know they weren't talking to Dad, and it seems now like most of what I did for those five months was set up the xylophones. I can smell the spray we used to clean them if I picture pulling them out of the closet, the dark one the size of an oven, the little metal ones with corners that cut my hands, the long ones that made nice plunking sounds when the bars fell off. And all those classes of kids, Rachel and Lauren and Andy and Peter, with high voices and clean floppy hair and scrapes on their knees, always crying for reasons too painful for them to explain, and raising their hands to tell me their mallets didn't work, and lining up for bathroom breaks. And the foreign kids, Gabor and Amir and Evelina and Nico. Dad used a special slow voice when he talked to them, and usually they were the strangest, quietest kids in the room, full of bizarre stories and languages that came out, when their brothers or parents finally picked them up at the end of the day, like the babble of people who've been possessed. (But they're all foreign kids, I'd sometimes think--every one of them got to the world less than a decade ago.)

Dad seemed older when he was teaching than he did any other time, sitting on his tall stool with his elbows on his knees, treating every class like they ought to think about dropping out of school to concentrate full-time on their music. "If anybody wants to come in and play during recess, lunch, or after school, tell me and I'll stick around as long as you feel like staying. I see a lot of talent here, a scary amount of talent."

When I had him--when I was one of the little kids who loved shouting "Boo!" during the Halloween song--every music class was such a joy that all my weeks would aim straight for those Thursday mornings, the way other kids' weeks aimed for Friday afternoons. Having him was like being the son of an actor or a politician, but even more electric because I wasn't allowed to act like I was his son. I'd sit cross-legged on my mat, grinning, stuffed with secret power. At the end of the period I'd rush up to the front and stand there owning him while he packed away his music. From the piano bench now, though, I saw him the way the rest of the kids must have: an old man with huge glasses and gray hair and a loose belly who didn't seem to really listen to the questions people asked him.

Walking home in the afternoon, getting waved across Dorset by a crossing guard with a bright orange belt, he'd say, "You're a hell of a sport, listening to this rinky-dink stuff all day. You're going to put in some work, and people one day are going to be bragging you were their teacher."

Mom was less sure. Whenever Dad called me a musician, she looked down and starting paying angry attention to whatever she was doing. We sent little signals of hate and stubbornness to each other whenever she walked past me watching TV, or napping on the couch, or doing anything that wasn't pretending to plan on going back to college. Before she went up to bed to read each night, she'd put a hand on my shoulder, tired from all the quiet fighting, and almost say something but then not.

My leaving school was only the latest thing to disappoint her, the easiest thing to put a name to. She's always been dreamy, private, a little fed up with everyone she knows. She'll sometimes let bits of complaints slip--"How long has your father lived here and he still doesn't know where the can opener goes?" "If Uncle Walter doesn't want to be alone, then he should do something about it"--but they just feel like spoonfuls from a bath. She doesn't belong on the East Coast, she's not interested in the women in Chevy Chase, she feels cheated that she's fifty and all she's done is raise children (and furious when she senses someone thinking that all she's done is raise children). She has dark tea bags under her eyes, and for three, four hours a day she'll sit in her blue chair and read the Post, looking disappointed. When she's reading about politics she talks to the paper--"Unexpected by you, maybe," "Oh, ho, ho, you are an idiot"--but if you ask her what she means she doesn't answer. She clips her favorite "Doonesbury"s and uses them as bookmarks.

When she was twenty-one she took a bus from San Francisco to D.C. for a protest. She got arrested and put in the Redskins stadium for the night with thousands of other people, and sitting next to her on the field were four loudmouthed friends with beards and sweaters. They were in a jazz band, they told her, and the shortest, shyest one--the one who laughed like he had to think about it, who offered her his coat when she started to fall asleep--was Dad. She stayed in their house after they got out, and Dad convinced her to come on tour for a couple of months. She'd been looking for a reason not to go home.

She spent almost a year driving with them to clubs in Manhattan, Philadelphia, Delaware, even a few in Miami, only sleeping in the D.C. house a couple of nights a week. "I felt like an outlaw," she says now, "sitting around smoky bars at three in the morning. It was divine." But when the bassist quit to get married, Mom decided to go to nursing school. She loved doctors' offices, loved medicine, loved the idea of spending her days so busy and helpful and serious. But at the end of her first year she got pregnant with David, and that summer, after explaining to everyone she knew how women went through nursing school pregnant all the time, she dropped out. (She still has her medical books in a box downstairs, though, all of them heavy and covered in furry dust. When I was in fifth grade I used to sneak down to read the part in Human Biology on orgasms--". . . a series of involuntary muscular contractions followed by . . ."--and I'd go back up feeling as if I'd been downstairs with a prostitute.)

Dad had been managing a sheet music store in Georgetown while she was in school, and a few years after she dropped out he got a job teaching music to seventh graders in Gaithersburg. At night, instead of practicing, he'd stay up working on his lesson plans. "Those who can, do," he likes to say. "I don't kid myself about it." Sometimes he actually sounds sad when he says it, but usually he sounds like he's just trying to be modest, and hoping you'll realize he's just trying to be modest. Mom says--and you can see Dad wince whenever she says it--that she knew he'd teach for the rest of his life the minute he came home from his first day in the classroom. "You certainly don't do it as a get-rich-quick scheme," he says, but the truth is he doesn't need a get-rich-quick scheme. When he and Mom were in their thirties, just before I was born, they inherited a lot of money from Dad's parents. Mom, still good with a thermometer, still quick with cool washcloths, never got back to work.

In the pictures from when she was in her twenties she's smiling, sitting on a porch I don't recognize holding a cigarette, or standing in front of a mirror with Dad's sax around her neck, looking like a girl who might make me nervous. Her hair was still all brown then and her skin didn't hang and she liked to wear long, silvery earrings. Sometimes she sang with Dad's band. When I was little, before she was sad or maybe just before I realized she was sad, she used to sit on the edge of the rocking chair next to my bed and lean over me, singing in her whisperiest voice.
Ben Dolnick|Author Q&A

About Ben Dolnick

Ben Dolnick - Zoology

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Ben Dolnick lives in Brooklyn with his wife. He is the author of the novels You Know Who You Are and Zoology, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and on NPR.

Author Q&A

An Interview with Ben Dolnick

Q: The narrator in ZOOLOGY has one of the most authentic and convincing voices. Henry is sympathetic, kindhearted, but also socially awkward and occasionally infuriatingly naive. What drew you to this character? Is there anything special you did to get into Henry’s head?

A: Well, I got the idea for his character in a strange way. When I was in college, I used to see a particular sad-looking middle-aged guy around campus all the time, usually walking alone, sometimes talking to himself. I’d slow down near him, to listen to him talk, or else I’d just watch him for a few seconds while I ate my lunch. And I never spoke to him or even learned his name, but I came to be weirdly fascinated by him – particularly with thinking about how he must have been when he was younger. I tried to imagine what his life must have been like, whether he would have had friends, where he might have lived – and that was what gave me the first inkling of Henry. Of course as I wrote, I came to start thinking about Henry as a person of his own, and I stopped thinking about the guy (I wonder if he’s still around, actually – I’d love to see him), but that was the beginning.

Q: Over the course of the novel we see Henry fail at many things. He fails at his first year of college, he fails as a jazz musician, and he fails time and time again at the zoo. Why do you think Henry gets the short end of the stick so often?

A: You know, strange as it sounds, I’d never thought about it so starkly before. It seems kind of sad when you lay it out like that, and it certainly wasn’t my design to have him fail at everything he does. But I guess I see now why I might have gravitated toward that – I always find stories about sadness and failure to be so much more interesting than ones about the sunnier side of the emotional spectrum. There’s a terrific poem by Yehuda Amichai called “The Precision of Pain and the Blurriness of Joy” that’s about, well, exactly what it sounds like it would be about – how many subtle shadings we have for describing unpleasant things (this aches, that stings, that throbs), but how vague and inarticulate we become when trying to talk about happiness. And I feel that very much in myself. I feel on much firmer footing when I’m trying to describe something going wrong.

Q: You had a brief stint at the Central Park Zoo yourself. How closely do Henry’s workdays resemble yours? Did you take the job and then come up with the novel, or did you take the job in order to research an existing novel idea?

A: I worked there for one summer during college, and I took the job, I think, mostly because I didn’t want to take the usual sort of internship/office job that might lead (horrors!) to a job offer. I was already certain that I wanted to write fiction after I graduated, and I didn’t want to get drawn into anything that might distract me from that – the zoo (which I’d visited and loved) seemed like just the thing. I didn’t go into the job with a specific idea of how I’d write about it – whether it would be a novel, or a story, or just a piece of a character – but I certainly hoped I’d write something. A huge number of experiences that might otherwise be a pain (being stuck at the airport, cocktail parties, even having a toothache) become a pleasure, I find, once I get it in mind that I’ll write about them. It’s all research; the worse the better.

And working at the zoo really wasn’t as bad as all that, but writing about it did let me enjoy it in a way I might not otherwise have been able to do. My days there were almost exactly like Henry’s – raking, shoveling, and lots and lots of staring at animals who seemed to like me directly in proportion to how much hay I happened to be holding.

Q: Is there an actual goat named Newman?

A: There is a Newman – he’s the only character who I took from reality and put into the book more or less whole. He was my favorite animal from the very beginning, and so I’d spend a lot of time watching him, having staring contests with him, giving him treats. I used to write, when I worked at the zoo, on little index cards that I’d keep in my pocket, so I could tuck them away if my boss ever happened to wander over. One day I was standing in front of Newman’s pen writing something – probably a very lofty idea for a novel that had nothing at all to do with the zoo – when Newman appeared over my shoulder and bit the cards out of my hand. It felt like he was teasing me, reminding me that there was plenty of material right in front of me. And that I’d forgotten to give him his afternoon meal.

Q: Tell us about Margaret, Henry’s love interest. Do you like her?

A: I do. Lots of people who have read the book have said that they hated her, that they found her so manipulative and heartless, and that always surprises me. She does hurt Henry, of course, but that isn’t her intention – or at least she doesn’t relish it. If the novel were told from Margaret’s perspective, I think that Henry would only be a minor character – somewhere along the lines of Wendy, Henry’s first girlfriend, in his version of things. And that’s something that I’ve always found very interesting and sad, how much value we can end up placing on the words and actions of people who might not think much about us at all. There’s a painful asymmetry there, and I think it only begins to get resolved at the end of the book, when people start assuming their proper sizes in Henry’s mind.

Q: Henry’s family seems to explode just as he has moved on to adulthood. What are you saying about the costs of growing up?

A: Hmm. When Henry was growing up, he probably didn’t think of his parents as particularly vulnerable or even as human, really, and they actually were doing fairly well. Healthy, reasonably happy, not especially worth worrying about. But once he got old enough to start seeing them more truly – as people who stumble through their lives just like he does – they actually did start having real problems, their bodies failing them, their marriage cracking up. And I think that’s a fairly common coincidence: we grow up just in time to start being needed as grownups.

Q: You’re twenty-four and here you are publishing your first book. It’s a young start! What does that feel like?

A: Every stage of it has been incredible, really, and a complete surprise. Finding an agent, selling the book, first seeing it all laid out in a handsome font with real chapter breaks and everything – every time something like that happens I find myself having to go for a speedy walk around my neighborhood, just to burn off the excess delight. In some ways I think my personality is better-suited to coping with failure than with success – I’m quite able to console myself, to buck myself up after a blow – so having all this terrific luck has required a bit of readjustment, to stop looking for the bad parts. I don’t know that I could ever outgrow anxiety entirely, but when I’m able to quiet that part of myself for a minute, mostly I just feel stunned with gratitude.

Q: Who are your literary influences?

A: In some other life I think I should have been a librarian. I love recommending books, giving books, talking about the authors who are important to me. And there are so many! Alice Munro, probably more than anyone – I feel lucky to be alive when she’s publishing, corny as it sounds. And Philip Roth, George Saunders, William Trevor, Nicholson Baker, Kurt Vonnegut, William Maxwell.... And then the dead people, of course. Chekhov, Tolstoy, Proust, Woolf. I’m just reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries, actually, and they’re astonishing; she’s able to articulate such elusive things, it really stretches your idea of what’s sayable. And it’s so comforting, for some reason, to hear her fretting that Mrs. Dalloway isn’t going to be well-received, or that To the Lighthouse is just a boring mess. Writing is just so, so hard. (But reading, when you’re able to find the right book, is bliss).

Q: What in your life made you want to become a writer?

A: Well, the pleasure of reading was probably the main thing. I remember first reading Ken Kesey’s novel Sometimes a Great Notion when I was fourteen or fifteen, how I’d stay up at night with my whole body tingling. The pleasure of books seemed so private, compared with the pleasure of movies or TV: I’d often read books and find things that I didn’t know anyone else had ever felt, that I hardly knew I had felt. To make something that could do that seemed (and still seems) like the greatest thing in the world.

And then, of course, there’s just the pleasure of mimicry, of different peoples’ voices. I spent a lot of time when I was growing up being told to stop imitating people – the waiter with the goofy accent, the teacher who coughed after everything he said. But I wasn’t making fun of people, really, I was just enjoying the sound of it, seeing if I could get it right. And that’s one of the basic pleasures of writing, for me – seeing if I can capture what’s funny or strange about a certain voice.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In a distressingly scattershot way, I’m writing a lot about childhood, life from about eight to eighteen. I managed to get a little bit of those years into this book, but not nearly everything I want to say. While I’m still relatively close to childhood, I want to get those observations down. I’ll go through patches where I’ll think I’ve said everything I have to say, I ought to go to Spain and become a bullfighter...and then suddenly I’ll think: Sleepovers! I’ve forgotten to say anything about sleepovers! And that’ll be a rich vein to work for a while, whole streams of memories burbling up that I’d lost touch with entirely. And that’s more or less how I proceed. I feel sometimes, strangely, as if I’m responsible for getting down all the details of this lost culture, like the last surviving member of a tribe. And that part of life – getting ice clumps in my gloves on snow days, and playing shuffleboard in the basement, and starting a restaurant in the front yard – really is lost. And even if it’s only lost to me, it still feels very urgent.

Praise | Awards

Praise

"Ben Dolnick is a writer of incredible sensitivity. Zoology explores the tricky journey to adulthood with honesty, humor, and generosity." —Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated

“An exciting, confident, and thoroughly endearing debut. Dolnick writes with a maturity that belies his years, and Zoology–distinguished by a rare combination of narrative patience and instinctive kindness–is a real cause for celebration.”
—George Saunders, author of In Persuasion Nation

Zoology is a wonderful first novel. It shines a light on that tricky time when you are trying to get a life, own it, make it yours. Ben Dolnick is as funny as he is wise, as honest as he is charming–and he has won me over entirely.” 
—Laura Dave, author of London is the Best City in America

“Ben Dolnick's Zoology is a bright, sweet, sad, fresh, and funny novel, very honest and ultimately quite moving.”
—Gabriel Brownstein, author of The Man from Beyond

“I love Zoology. Ben Dolnick's narrator, Henry, is painfully familiar to those of us who have done some serious stumbling along life's road, and he is as engaging and interesting a character as I've come across in a long, long time. Best of all, he makes me laugh out loud.” —Abigail Thomas, author of A Three Dog Life

Awards

WINNER 2008 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age

  • Zoology by Ben Dolnick
  • May 08, 2007
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $12.95
  • 9780307279156

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