“Critical thinking is reasonable, logical, reflective thinking that focuses on what to believe and do.” This is the statement I have posted on the wall of my secondary English classroom and to which I frequently refer throughout the year. Critical thinking is the most vital skill a student can possess, not just in the classroom but in life. However, I didn’t have this goal in mind when I read Poe Ballantine’s “Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel,” reprinted in Cheryl Strayed’s 2013 edition of The Best American Essays; but as I read, I came to recognize this essay as a valuable opportunity to develop and apply this crucial skill with my students. In this particular essay, Ballantine is not afraid to challenge his own credibility as a narrator. He seems to be presenting his readers with a question. “How credible am I?” It’s a question that requires critical analysis to answer.
In “Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel,” originally published in a 2012 issue of The Sun, Ballantine illustrates a period of his life, and a narrative persona, that isn’t so soaked in reality. At 32 years old, he’s a man living in Eureka, California, working part-time jobs, including nude model, book review writer, and fellow-tenant evictor. The number of jobs he’s worked and places he’s lived (at the time of a 2013 American Literary Review interview, he had worked 75 jobs in 30 states) seem to indicate that he’s searching for something more than just adventure. Along with a lost sense of direction and self, he has also lost a firm sense of reality—a trait that shapes his narrator in the essay and gives readers a chance to question his dependability. Ballantine’s relationship with reality calls his reliability into question. In an article titled “Mud Formula and Effervescence: 10 Rules for Good Writing,” Poe Ballantine’s sixth rule states, “Reality is your friend…90% of everything I’ve ever published was grounded in reality…In all of everything I ever wrote that was decent, the plot, subplots, and principal characters were drawn from real life.” While the majority of his work is, indeed, nonfiction, not all of it is characterized by reality.
There are three instances in “Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel” that cause Ballantine to struggle with reality. First, and most evident, is the stock market crash of 1987. Immediately after hearing the news from a friend, his first instinct is to predict possible forms of America’s demise: “from the sky above I expected to see falling stockbrokers. I pictured myself on a freight train full of hobos” (4). He continues to obsess (inventing creative catastrophes) about the economic state of the country. Though every person with whom he interacts remains unconcerned, he is convinced that they are misguided: “The joke was on them…for the Dark Ages were at hand, and only those who could ride the rails, roll their own cigarettes, and live on hand-sawn fish and black bear would survive” (9). While he remains uneasy about the country’s well-being, he is confident that he, with all his experience and skill from living a life on-the-go, will be fine. Second, he entertains the idea that the wild meat in his freezer, donated by Mrs. Vollstanger, his tyrannical apartment manager, is actually the remains of her recently-deceased husband. Later, Ballantine describes gnawing on the bear meat “imagining that through some pantheistic hoodoo [he] might incorporate the bear’s spirit, at the same time pushing out of [his] mind the possibility that it was Mr. Vollstanger’s liver” (9). Finally, Ballantine’s distance from reality comes in the form of the novel he is working on. He describes it as a “great Rabelaisian satirical novel about greed and voluptuous social dependence in an allegorical lunatic asylum inhabited by evil clowns” (8). A plot that seemed to match Ballantine’s wry sense of humor, evident throughout the essay, as well as his misguided sense of what good writing was at the time.
While readers get a sense of his eccentric, droll narrator throughout the essay, there’s also a presence of the current Poe Ballantine, the man who wrote the reflective piece years after it took place. A man who, now married and settled in Nebraska, where I also live, has a more realistic view on life and view on writing, which has led to a reasonably successful career—Tom Robbins describes him as “the most soulful, insightful, funny, and altogether luminous ‘under-known’ writer in America” (qtd. in Zimmer). In a 2014 interview with Caleb Powell titled “High Plains Drifter,” he is a more established individual than the person he presents in “Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel,” and he is well aware of the way he struggled to deal with adversity in his past. He tells Powell, “At age thirty-eight I had a complete crack-up. It wasn’t mental illness as much as it was a collision with reality. I’d been clinging to this notion that I would write a novel that would rescue me from manual labor and other types of human suffering…By the time I’d recovered, I’d developed a pretty tough armor of scars and a more compatible relationship with reality.” Perhaps the novel to which he is referring in the interview is the failed clown novel and the “human suffering” are those undesirable circumstances he describes in the essay. Coming to terms with his failures and learning from them indicates that, in this essay, he’s commenting on his past from the perspective of writer rather than narrator. In the podcast interview, “200: Poe Ballantine – Struggle and Beauty,” conducted by Eric Zimmer, Ballantine discusses the need for him as a writer to be open to and observant of his environment—the reality around him. It makes him vulnerable, but the vulnerability is necessary for the real-life material that makes up the bulk of his work. He may not have perceived these realities in 1987, which is probably why he attempted to write a novel about evil clowns, but his failures enable him to perceive them later in life. Once again, this self-reflective man who is now attuned to the world and reality around him and within him is a stark contrast to the man he presents in “Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel.” The difference is compelling, engaging, and real.
Elin Petersen teaches Freshman and Senior English at Louisville High School and is currently a graduate student in the MA English program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She loves elephants, fringe, and The Office and has recently become an enthusiastic plant lady.