Slowly I Turn in My Ergonomic Desk Chair: The Antiracism Trainings – a Book Review

The Antiracism Trainings. by David Reich. BlazeVOX, 2010. 367 pages.

Although he works a desk job, middle-aged Mickey Kronenberg has physical vigor and spiritual strength. Quirky, affable, solitary, Jewish in a Christian world, Mickey, the protagonist of David Reich’s novel The Antiracism Trainings, edits a magazine for the Liberal Religion Center (LRC), the national headquarters of a post-Christian religious denomination.

Mickey’s coworkers are an odd lot. The Rev. Don Pulliam, the LRC’s long-winded president, suffers the delusion that he’s not only Jewish but “more authentically so than others who might happen to call themselves Jews.” Another Don, Don Sykes, Mickey’s immediate boss, though he seems to have an active conscience, devotes more time to the LRC’s arcane internal politics than to overseeing publications. Ann-Elise Goldberg and Tiffany Quintana, Mickey’s other colleagues at the magazine, share his mounting trepidation over the antiracism training that LRC staff have been told to attend.

The Antiracism Trainings suggests that, while opposing racism is laudable, all antiracisms aren’t equal, not equally effective or equally well-meant. Ironically, given that racism is often engendered by low self-esteem, the LRC trainings, which are based on the idea all whites are racists by definition, turn into an exercise in self-abasement (for the white trainees) and self-aggrandizement (for the trainers).  Just as it’s no coincidence that Mickey’s initials are MLK, it’s also no coincidence that the trainings are conducted in the main by the Rev. Alfred Hittenmiller, who along with Mal Bond, the LRC’s “antiracism czar,” comes across as an ideologue bent on dogma, not a teacher but a rigid, egotistical, short-sighted bully.

Reich does what all good novelists do: he transports us to a world—in this case the world of the LRC, with its echo-filled stairwells, its gloomy hallways and Victorian restrooms. Equally vivid is Reich’s depiction of the off-site conference center where the trainings are held.  The assorted muffins offered to the trainees, the auditorium with its podium and rows of metal folding chairs, and the bedroom Mickey shares with another male staffer who has traveled to attend the trainings, a room that’s always either too hot or too cold, are vital parts of Mickey’s often claustrophobic world, a world in which the past, represented by the ghost of his immigrant Grandma Yosnow, constantly informs the present.  Who am I?  That is a central question for Mickey, a writer, a secular Jew, and someone who shares many LRC beliefs.  Who are we?  That’s also a central question.

Race is also, of course, an abiding theme, but in place of polemic there is plot. One of the book’s most memorable episodes takes place in mid-training, when Mal and Hittenmiller confront Tiffany, Mickey’s young Mexican-American colleague, who has refused to take part in a “breakout group” for people of color.  Prodded by the trainers, Tiffany blows up. Over the course of the training, Mickey, too, blows up, though more quietly and inwardly.

The Antiracism Trainings begins at the end, with the knowledge that Mickey was pressured, even forced to leave his job. But we read on to learn exactly how that happened.  The plot in this novel, like the settings and the characters, is first-rate, taking many unpredictable turns. More importantly, each scene propels a reader to another level of the central questions:  Who am I?  Who are we?

Part of the power of this novel comes from the fact that we can’t really answer the first of these questions without answering the second. Before, during, and after the training, Mickey tries, even struggles to compromise with the LRC’s hyper-correct ethos, but in the end his conscience holds him back.  One character central to his development is Malika Carter, an African-American theologian who, like Mickey, rejects the all-whites-are-racists formula, arguing that those who propagate the formula are really engaged in a power grab, a climb up the organizational chart. The book’s portrayal of characters like Hittenmiller and Mary Kay Beauregard Jackson, an LRC executive, suggests that the struggle between the LRC’s “antiracists” and the magazine is less about race than self-interest, greed, paranoia, bad faith.

Though the novel is written in a humorous key, sadness lurks underneath the humor, as Mickey and his colleagues, one after another, are forced to leave the LRC, their departures regretted by some of those who remain behind and welcomed by some others. Don Sykes, for example, regrets Mickey’s leaving, a regret as feeble as it is genuine. Mickey has worked hard, and we get a sense that the magazine will be diminished without him, but we also feel relief for Mickey when he walks away with his values intact.

by Peter Mladinic

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