In Praise of Pranking

“I, being of a philosophical bent, can hardly do anything without slathering some patina of significance over it,” said Neil Steinberg.

“At St. Martin’s, they expected a kind of toilet book,” he allowed. Instead, his publisher received a manuscript bearing the traditional profile of the first novel: life as a succession of passionate confrontations, fear and fustian scorned and impertinence acclaimed, a code for living gleaned as an elegiac adieu is bid to youth.

Steinberg began writing his first novel at Ragdale about eight years ago. “In my heart I believe it was a funny book,” he told us. No one showed any interest in publishing it.

So now Steinberg has written his “toilet book.” It is not a novel, but it does have a publisher. It is a collection of college pranks called If at All Possible, Involve a Cow. Steinberg poured his heart and soul into it. It brims with displaced consequence.

Steinberg ponders “the important dynamic tension between rigidity and disorder necessary for good pranks.” He observes, “Too much tradition and there is nobody of a mind to commit pranks. The creepy, ‘Twilight Zone’ feeling that certain religious colleges put off, with their clean-cut, cookie-cut Brads and Lindas in their loafers and their blue Oxford shirts, comes not from the religion, itself, but from the utter lack of that spice of opposition, that dissenting grace note of prankery.

“A similar sort of creepiness is felt from the touchy-feely, no walls, no grades, call-me-Professor-Steve colleges where there is no need for pranks because everything is OK and there are no traditions to break.”

Think of prankishness as burbling from the same spring as literature. It stands in opposition. It both tests reality and asserts it. It honors a culture as it assails it. Attempting research, Steinberg was frequently turned away by administrators who feared for their schools’ reputations. (“I wanted to do black colleges,” he told us, “but my approaches to black colleges were kind of rebuffed. An official at Howard said, ‘We don’t do that kind of thing.'”) A hundred schools appear in Cow but three dominate it, Caltech, Harvard, and MIT, each of which takes its superiority for granted.

For reasons that mystify Steinberg, “only one or two very lukewarm pranks” were gleaned from the University of Chicago. He is less confused about his alma mater, Northwestern, which can boast of little beyond the occasional raid on the Fisk Hall bust of Joe Medill.

“Northwestern is a very staid place,” recalled Steinberg, who graduated in ’82. “Not owning a pair of Top-Siders and a tweed coat, I was wondering what was wrong with me. At Northwestern people kill themselves every year. We had someone kill himself by taking a steak knife and stabbing himself in the heart.” So pranks weren’t a tradition, but death was? we wondered. “Northwestern was worried about it,” he said. “There were one or two a year, but that’s enough to catch your attention, and that’s what this book is about in a sense. I’m trying to tell people you don’t have to rent a room in the Orrington Hotel and hang yourself. You can rebel against the things that keep you down.”

We wondered if as Steinberg wrote he mourned his own inadequately misspent youth. “Not particularly,” he said. “I feel as in all things that I did my best and better than most. I could have done better, but I was from Ohio. I was insecure.” Steinberg’s first prank was to steal a keg of beer from a fraternity house, an act too prosaic to warrant mention in the book. Later he postered the campus to promote an April 31 screening of a nonexistent porn film, D-Grade Women, thus lampooning a traditional form of fund-raising at NU and earning the fury of humorless women’s groups.

“I’m not presenting myself as Mr. Prankmeister,” said Steinberg. “I was studying Russian case endings. I wanted to go into international relations.”

Steinberg went into journalism instead, and he’s now a reporter at the Sun-Times. On December 1, 1985, he spotted an AP article on MIT pranks (he still has the clipping). Immediately inspired, he free-lanced an article on the subject for Games magazine, and his research led him to the astonishing discovery that there were no books on the subject.

Then he would write one! He began mailing copies of his magazine article out to literary agents, who witlessly responded that this was a great subject for a magazine article. “People rarely like to do any sort of independent thinking,” he decided.

He stopped sending out the Games article–“because it skewed people’s thinking”–and instead wrote a sample chapter. Eventually Steinberg went through two agents who briefly represented him but accomplished nothing before finding a young New Yorker, David Black, who both believed in the book and had the talent to sell it. The biggest offer came from Simon & Schuster, where, Steinberg says, an editor told him that this was the first college-prank proposal he’d seen with “philosophical underpinnings.” Steinberg ultimately opted for St. Martin’s Press in order to work with a young editor there who shared his taste for Thomas Pynchon.

“Nobody goes into science because they think the world is too orderly and complete,” Steinberg muses, in a passage on Ditch Day that finds him at intellectual cruising speed. “They yearn for a world of significance, for what Pynchon calls ‘another mode of meaning behind the obvious,’ and for today, they’ve got it. A world transformed into a crystal of paranoid complexity.”

Whatever “crystal of paranoid complexity” might mean, there’s a ring to it that we’re sure will please Caltech, whose annual Ditch Day pits seniors against underclassmen in rigidly codified and ritualized technological warfare. It’s a day of strokes and counterstrokes that Steinberg conveys with remarkable lucidity. But then his father, before retiring to paint watercolors, was a nuclear physicist.

Steinberg remembers the two of them watching a TV show that looked back ten years to Chicago’s Democratic-convention riots of 1968. “My father turned to me and said, ‘You wouldn’t do anything like that.’ And I said, ‘Dad, if I was there at that time nothing in the world would have kept me from sitting down in the middle of Michigan Avenue and letting those cops beat me up.'”

Born for that age instead of this, Steinberg would not have written his first book about college pranks. Yet writing these days is only nominally about its subject, and in his own way he’s meditating on the century. His book concludes with a code of college prankdom. “If at all possible, involve a cow,” he tells young readers, the cow purloined from a nearby pasture and prodded up a steep flight of stairs enjoying classic status in collegiate effrontery. Today cowpower, like horsepower, lives mostly in metaphor. “In the general absence of cows . . . we have to cling to the challenge they once presented.”

Another rule is this: “If at all possible, dispense justice.” Steinberg goes on about justice, which seems to matter even more to him than the cow.

Syndicated Righters

Is America swinging left? Not that you’d notice from reading America’s newspapers. We had an idea that rising unemployment + vanishing industries + a preposterous national debt + a decaying infrastructure + crummy schools + the health-care mess + rampant crime + a loss of national purpose might find some readers of the nation’s Daily Bugles muttering insurrection. If so, we wondered if the Daily Bugles would capitalize on this trend by making space on their op-ed page for an insurrectionist. Or at least a liberal.

Guess not. The demand for liberal punditry doesn’t look any larger than it’s ever been. We just made our annual study of Editor & Publisher’s yearly “directory of syndicated services,” which is stuffed with ads the syndicates take out to hawk their talent. We assume a reliable correlation between what syndicates offer and what publishers want.

They want the right. Fifteen columnists and three cartoonists were promoted as “conservatives” in E&P and just seven columnists and two cartoonists as liberals. In addition, there was one “libertarian” (the Tribune’s Stephen Chapman) and one “populist.” The totals a year ago were 16 conservatives and 7 liberals.

Only one E&P liberal, Carl Rowan, shows up in either of Chicago’s major dailies, which carry the conservatives George Will, Suzanne Fields, Paul Greenberg, and James J. Kilpatrick. Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly wasn’t categorized this year, but in ’91 he was touted as “extraordinary, biting, conservative.”

But even if it’s better to be deemed “conservative” than “liberal,” the best label is none at all. The syndicates market most of their prime beef as crackerjack thinkers with no point of view.

Here’s the line on some names familiar to Chicago: Mike Royko–“straight to the point, hard-hitting and witty commentary on everything worth thinking about.” Bob Greene–“extraordinary perception about people and events.” Jeff Greenfield–“informed perspective combining common sense with wit and insight.” Evans and Novak–“breaking stories from the world’s hot spots, [they] report and analyze the news.”

But no insurrectionists. As soon as a scrivener’s touted with the claim “passionate and persuasive, she incites readers everywhere to storm city hall,” we’ll let you know.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.