Midnight in Dostoevsky – Don Delillo – Revisiting the Overused

If you have taught or taken a creative writing workshop, then you have undoubtedly encountered a number of stories set on college campuses.  Write what you know, professors tell young writers, and for some writers in their late teens/early twenties that means college.  The students write about classes, flailing romances, adventures outside of the bubble into a city, the usual.  It often comes across as unoriginal and uninteresting.  I have a similar gripe about writers that tend to write stories or novels about writers.

Don Delillo‘s short story “Midnight in Dostoevsky” is set at a small liberal arts college somewhere in a sputtering town in the North East.  What separates this story from other “college” stories are the skills of Delillo and the subject matter.  The two freshmen boys are slightly socially awkward, one more than the other, and walk around the town competing with each other through a range of topics.  Their relationship is based on verbal sparring, inventing plausible fictions, and seeing themselves as “serious people.”  Delillo does a great job of capturing how relationships are formed in college.  The young men come from different backgrounds, but there’s something which draws them together.

Their logic professor, Ilkauskus, is written in a way that shows the sort of mystery underclassmen may have for a professor.  Ilkauskus does not make much sense, but the students feel a mixture of intimidation and awe regarding him, as if he is some kind of oracle trapped in a bad suit.  As the story progresses, reality and fiction become blurred as the boys weave Professor Ilkauskus into their fiction of an old hooded man they follow throughout the town.  In that fiction, the old man is an immigrant from Eastern Europe and Ilkauskus’ father.  When the two boys have a chance to discover the truth about the old man, they have a falling out.  Is the falling out because of what that truth would mean for their fiction, or is it really about the fiction of their own relationship?

Good writing will carry through no matter what.  Even though a topic or setting may be overused, if you have a story to tell and that story needs to be on a college campus or about a stripper with a good heart, write it.  If it’s a great story, it will be recognized.

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