A Shortage of Engineers: A Novel


by Robert Grossbach (St. Martin's Press


(This column was first published in the February , 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


I hold farmers and engineers in the very highest regard. And for many of the same reasons: they are extremely hard working, dedicated and ready to take on any problem. Some would say that engineers are brighter. I'm not so sure; the farmers I know are simply concerned about different things. But engineers are great and they are indeed smart.


In any case, my appreciation for engineers led me to Robert Grossbach's novel, A Shortage of Engineers (St. Martin's Press, 2001) and I am delighted that it did.


This is a story about a young engineer suffering through his first job at a large manufacturing firm, International Instruments -- II for short. His interactions with idiot administrators (too accurately portrayed in my judgment) and both bright and dull colleagues were very well described in the context of a good story. And the fact that the author is himself an engineer helped him to lend authenticity to his writing.


Even the squibs that began each chapter were great: "The floggings will continue till morale improves. --Handwritten Sign in Engineering Office". And the old joke that opened the story set the tone very well:


"During the French Revolution a doctor, a lawyer, and an engineer were all led to the guillotine chopping block to be executed. The doctor went first.


"'Face up or face down?' asked the hooded executioner.


"'Face down,' said the doctor. The executioner nodded, then released the rope that held the suspended blade. But to everyone's surprise, the blade seemed to bind in its tracks, and nothing happened. The executioner shrugged. 'An act of God, 'he said to the doctor. 'You are free to go. 'He called the lawyer. 'Face up or face down?'


"'Face down.' Again, the blade was released...and again it failed to descend. 'Once more, an act of God,' said the executioner to the lawyer. 'You are free to go.' Finally, it was the engineer's turn. 'Face up or face down?'


"'Face up.' 'All right,' said the executioner, but just as he readied to release the blade, the engineer cried out, 'Wait a minute, wait a minute -- I think I see the problem!'"


I'll treat you here to two of my favorite passages from the book. The first is the French engineer commenting (very accurately) on a difference between his own countrymen and Americans:


"After a moment, Boulot said, 'I will tell you what is zee strength of America. Zee strength of America lies in ignorance and apathy.'


"'I'm not sure I follow...'


"'Take ze French. We are a nasty race. Very nasty. Narrow-minded. Bigoted. Argumentative. Xenophobic. The worst traits of the bourgeoisie. But . . stop an average Frenchman on the street and ask him to name five of his country's contemporary poets, and he can do it.'...Boulot smoothed one sleeve of his shapeless gray sweater, then looked up at me expectantly. 'Can you?'


"'Poets...?' 'Living. Americans.'


"My mind flashed quickly to the few American poets I'd ever read or heard of: Poe, Sandburg, e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, and.., was Thoreau a poet? I hesitated; engineers received meager education in the liberal arts.


"Boulot grinned.


"'Allen Ginsberg,' I said. He nodded. 'That's one.' 'Bruce Springsteen.' He shook his head....


"'But you see,' said Boulot, 'zese same people who know ze poets, zey cannot agree on anysing. Anysing. Zey argue, zey fight, zey curse, zey form zeir own political party, zey and our pamphlets, zey criticize ze government, zey criticize ze unions, management, business, utilities, students, foreign policy, everyone and everysing. Zere are ten million political groups, all very educated, very articulate, constantly grabbing each other's throats. And so ze country is paralyzed. It is in constant ferment, constant turmoil. It can barely keep from falling apart, and sometimes eet does fall apart.


"'But in America . . . no. Ze people, zey are not interested. Ze government? Of course ze politicians are all corrupt, but zat is not our problem. We are more concerned wiz ze football game and Michael Jackson and thirty-five-inch TVs and ze bar­becue on Sunday zan 'orrible boring economics and legisla­tion. Let ze Democrats and Republicans fight it out, we go to ze movies. And so... ze country is stable, powerful, and productive.' He sighed. 'Almost makes me want to stay.'"


In one of the subplots of the story, the engineer coaches a soccer team of six year olds, bringing to his coaching not athletic skills but those of a book-learner. The results are predictable, but the engineer is persistent and his team finally gains a lead in a game. Unfortunately the weather disintegrates and, the other coach and the referee refusing to call the game off, he does so, in the process forfeiting the game. With the expected result: his assistant coach quits and the parents seek to oust him. There is a hearing at which he is vilified before, finally, a young mother speaks out:


"'Is there not one of you who would say something kind about this coach? Not one of you who might mention how devoted he is to the children, to our children? Not one of you who might note that, unlike every other coach in this club, he does not have a child on the team? That he coaches purely out of the goodness of his heart?'


"'Is there not one of you who would note how much the children like him? How considerate he is of their feelings, how nice he is to them? How he never ever yells at them? How fair he is? How he gives everyone a chance, even the kids who aren't so good, who aren't hot shots and goal scorers, who on some other team would be relegated to playing half the game and in the back line -- how he gives them a shot at playing up front? And how he does it at any cost, at the cost of losing and incurring the wrath of the win-whatever-the-price parents who can't distinguish six-year-olds from professionals? Is there no one else who would even mention that?'


"'Is there no one who has seen this man minister to our children when they are hurt? Bandage them when they bleed, apply ice packs when they've been bruised, comfort them when they're distraught?' Even at a distance, I could see she was trembling. 'Is there no parent here, on this team, who can admit that maybe, just maybe, on that day of pouring icy windblown rain, this coach was a better parent to our children than we were? That he could see more clearly what was important, that he was not so intimidated by the prospect of peer disapproval that instead of blindly acquiescing to league rules written ten years ago by men seated around a table in a comfortable room -- he did what was right, instead of easy? What was sensible and reasonable and mature. What we should all have done had we only had the guts.'


"She gestured in my direction. 'How dare you subject him to this? How dare you treat him like this, when everything he's done, given of himself, has been for us?' She pointed at Michael's father. 'You want legal action, you disgusting, overbearing bully, I'll give you legal action.' Head whirl. 'I'll give you all legal action. If this coach gets dismissed, I'll sue the whole damn bloated bunch of you. I'll have you in court for a thousand years.' She extended a hand to Kevin, who rose obediently. 'Come,' she said, and then, with him trailing, strode through an opening between tables and out the door.


"It took nearly two minutes for the after-murmur to subside."


For that section alone, this book was worth the couple of hours this former coach and referee took to read, but the rest is good as well.-- Gerry Rising