The Proper, Respectable Transformation of John O’Donnelly III


Published: April 2, 2009

John lived in a twenty-room marbled mansion, perched neatly on a gently sloped hill, for the first thirty-six years of his life. His family only inhabited six of these rooms at any given time, and only dared use three of the sixteen bathrooms available to them, but the options were much appreciated. They thought little of the sixty-inch paper thin plasmas that hung unwatched in six

of their eight living rooms, nor of the neglected twenty-first century Iranian
hot tubs, which bore testament to a family’s habitual drowning of Franklins. His parents could not possibly lament over the vast collection of Milton, Blake, Byron, Clare, Browning, Owen, Rossetti, Lawrence, Donne, Jonson, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Lawrence, Tennyson, or Swift poetry (arduously acquired, mind you, by a slightly more enterprising relative), which forever played second chair to the trite, hypocritical phrases of partisan poets. The brilliant prose of Huxley, Orwell, Zamyatin, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Hemingway, West, Passos, O’Brien, Joyce, and Remarque, meanwhile, lay helplessly in the forgotten corners of his grandfather’s library, as John was force-fed the wordless prose of manipulative media men. “One day,” John said to his grandfather, “I’ll find the time to study these great men.”

His parents were of a more traditional mind, even by regional standards. Fearing the worst for their child, they sheltered their prized proof of fertility from the “thoughts of a middle-class world.” Every morning, from the age of four to eighteen, John would wake up at 6:33 a.m. and read only the most unbiased and truthful of rantings regarding his great land’s aches and pains, written by his father’s cohorts from the media world. “We need to keep this region safe,” his father would say, as he handed John the latest issue of The Region Review. “Certain people want to change our region, Johnny. They want to impose their radical thoughts and beliefs onto this great land, and to kill us so they can make millions.” John would inquisitively nod, trusting that his father was anything but a hypocritical, morally deaf, uninformed, three-timing, manipulative, propaganda pushing, farce of a gentleman.

During this time John also attended St. Paul the Righteous Catholic school, where he received the best upscale education in the area. He would arrive promptly at 8:02 every morning via his father’s limo service, and was escorted to the door by only the most caring, god-fearing servants available. After school, John was hastily escorted back into his limo at 3:03 p.m. by the same respectable servants, who waited patiently and upright by the school door for their master’s return.

Once home, John would be interrogated by a rotating team of disciplinarians, logic experts, and demagogues. Ancient nuns, carrying splinter-ridden rulers in their frigid hands, would whack John on the head whenever he questioned the tenets of their most sacred text. “Do not question the truth, heathen!” they would cry, striking him several times on his light blonde scalp. The logic experts—glasses small and pointed, hair trimmed and gelled by the hour —would then ask him a myriad of twisting and confusing questions, aimed at reducing the arguments of John’s friends to mere drivel. And the demagogues—they were the best. They would strut slowly throughout the room in their pristine black boots, adorned with medals of military, academic, spiritual, and humanitarian honors, analyzing John with a critic’s eye and an ideologue’s unreasoned fury. Their tempers were not to be tested.

One time, John brought up how his friend’s father was suing Vooix, a heart drug issued prematurely by the pharmaceutical company Palioskata, for severe side effects, including two heart attacks in the past six months. When the nun heard about this, she smacked John straight on the forehead with her trusty ruler, leaving a nasty bruise just above his left eye. “God will decide when we die!” she cried. Then the logic experts chimed in and asked a series of illogical questions, which better abled them to reach rash conclusions. “So we can’t be one hundred percent sure that Vooix caused his heart attack, can we?” they would say in unison, straightening their sparse hairs with Black Pearson combs. And the demagogues, sensing John’s vulnerability, would pound him with every irrational thought and feeling they possessed. Your friend’s father, they would scream, huffing up phlegmy balls of mucus and tobacco and firing them into John’s inquisitive green eyes, is an unpatriotic socialist looking to destroy this region and win millions of dollars to support the enemy’s agenda.

John’s development seemed to be heading in the right direction. He attended The Amathis University School of Conservative Arts & Ambiguous Humanities, receiving honors in the same major as his father (“Freedom Studies,” with a concentration in “Honest Indoctrination”). He began interning in his dad’s media conglomerate the day after graduation, working twenty-hour weeks as a professional schmoozer with minimal clerical duties. And for the first few years, John was excelling at his job, attending all the right yacht parties and making connections with all the right snobs and fops of Nation News and their affiliates. But something was wrong with John. John didn’t willingly immerse himself in Coulter’s historic diary, which his father so graciously presented him with for his thirty-third birthday. Nor did he spend his free time agonizing over the enemy’s socialist agenda, while shafting golf balls and drinking twelve-dollar beers. No. John was the inquisitive type. From the age of nine, John recycled soda cans, water bottles, iced teas, and the occasional wine box because of his strong belief in saving the environment, which despite his father’s claims was deteriorating from the inside out (he tried to get his mother to recycle as well, but she told him that she didn’t “have time for games”). John also gained notoriety amongst his office-mates for appreciating both sides of an argument, a trait which made him the target of daily white collar hazing. John was also a man of intense focus. He once spent four hours on an illegal Web site studying a Samaras photo, wondering where all of Lucas’s anger came from. Another time he read Gravity’s Rainbow three times over, embracing the fantastically metaphorical language of a craft long forgotten.

Perhaps his most impressive feat, however, was how he read his grandfather’s entire literary collection, much to the dismay of the nuns and demagogues (although the logic experts embraced these works in secret). From age twenty-five, when the team of disciplinarians and a media conglomerate could no longer contain his most urgent instincts, John sat down and read his first true piece of literature: Sammy and his best friend Wumpalumpa” (a book which, though less than fifty words in length, still contained more truth and sophistication than any Nation News sanctioned book). Just eleven years later, by age thirty-six, John III had read every word of his grandfather’s literary archives. He cherished every ironically bad line of Pope’s satirical verses, worshipped the foresight of Orwell’s “1984” (who was only off by thirty-eight years), and felt the fear of Tolstoy’s dying protagonist. He dined with the fops of East Egg Society, kicked Lemuel Pitkin to the ground when he was already done for, and left Cowper’s castaway to perish in an unforgiving sea. But Swift was his favorite of all. John laughed with every couplet that Swift crafted with his ingenious pen, from his sincere birthday wishes to Stella to the renowned Doctor’s fear of death. His grandfather even had the last copy of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” the poet’s most famous satire. John checked up on the piece every night, making sure his mother didn’t accidentally mistake it for some new-age toilet paper, or throw it to their German shepherds as “food for thought.” No, “A Modest Proposal” was too sacred to John. In fact, it served as a source of inspiration for the only poem he ever wrote: a rhyming couplet which he scribbled on the back of a napkin one night, and which he secretly kept in his back pocket until transformation day.

At first this was overlooked by John’s father, who saw it merely as an over-active mind which could be reigned in over time. But twenty-two turned into twenty-five, which turned into twenty-nine and, sure enough, thirty-six, and still John was not making much headway in his father’s company. He preferred to stay out of the broadcast booth his father set aside for him for the past eight years and instead immersed himself in the prose and poetry of more progressive eras. One day, he was reading the religious sonnets of Donne, the next analyzing the dream work of Dali, and still another day a certain play by Arthur Miller, all the while completing his minimal clerical work. He had started working at his father’s office at age twenty-two as a professional mingler, but by thirty-six was buried in a forgotten corner, preoccupied with Friedman’s abandoned opinions and Fitzgerald’s forgotten novels.


“Thirty-six, and still at home,” his father said to his wife one evening, while John was out exploring the deserted post-modern art galleries of regional city. “I’ve given him every opportunity to move up in the media world, and yet here he his, fourteen years later, and still a clerk boy!”

“That boy just needs a little more time to mature,” she said, twirling her Jean Sclumberger bracelet with three-hundred dollar manicures.

“No. This ends tomorrow, I’ll make sure of it. I’ve invested too much into this boy to let him do what he wants.”

“What, you mean be an artist?”

“Yes, exactly!

“What’s the harm in that, John? Let the boy do what he wants. It’s not like they’re going to come back anyway.” She gave her bracelet another twirl.

“That’s what they want you to think, Leila. They lure into a false sense of security, and then before you know it there are sculptures of naked men in every street corner. That’s why we need him for this job—he’ll be perfect for it.”

Leila stayed silent, content with twirling her pearls a little more. John’s father pressed on.

“He used to be so charismatic and outgoing. Remember the Pappas’s yacht party back in ’27? He riled the whole place up with his stories—people couldn’t get enough of him! Plus, he made contacts with three of the most powerful associates in our company, and he was barely out of college!”

“Things change, John.”

“They have changed for the worst Leila! That boy spends hours in my library, reading ‘Blake,’ and, and ‘Swift.’”

“Oh, are they friends of yours?”

“No. They were poets from the… nineteenth century, or maybe twentieth, who wrote nonsense about their country and attacked imaginary things. My grandfather collected famous editions which contained all their works. Wasted hours of his time reading them. Called them great men.”

“Uh huh.”

“But my grandfather was productive at least, a real industrious man. You know he was the–”

“The first to build an anti-aging facility. I know.”

“He assembled a massive team of scientists and personnel from all over the world, to work on an anti-aging pill which would be the size of your fingernail.” He touched her gently. She kept her eyes averted.

“And he did it, Leila. He created the largest pharmaceutical company in the region by the age of thirty-six. And what does John have to say about his own accomplishments at age thirty-six? He can probably recite a thousand-line poem written by one of those pinheads he admires. Isn’t that swell?!”

She shifted her attention to her equally expensive Canturi diamond necklace. She gasped when she saw what looked like a black scratch on one of her rare pearls. “John, I’m going to need a few thousand.”

“For what?”

“A new necklace. This one has a scratch on it.”

“A scratch? I don’t… see it…”

“Well John, if I think there is a scratch there, then I’ll be paranoid about it until I get a fresh one. Just give me the money before you go to sleep, ok?”

John sighed. “Ok.”

“Hello Region IV, and god bless you on this fine October morning. I want to start off today’s talk with a little bit of history, something the enemy doesn’t want you to know about. For while those neo-commies are off reading their ancient drivel and engaging in their uh, sexual orgies, talking their heads off about who knows what, we the people, endowed with freedom in this great region, can celebrate something today. For it was on this day, region, fifteen years ago, October 24th, 2041, that I was shown the light. It’s the day the enemy fears the most, but won’t ever let you know about. It was the day that I, John O’Donnelly, grandson of pharmaceutical king John O’Donnelly and son of John O’Donnelly the second, former host of the international satellite show The Conserver, would rid himself of Jonathan Swift and all those notorious fools of verses, and forever embrace the ideas of devout patriotism and headstrong faith, which have single-handedly lifted this great region of ours out of the dark abyss of neo-communism, and into the bosom of Lady Freedom.”


“Please come in, John.”

John’s father leaned with one hand on his desk, a pile of literature standing tall right behind him.

“What’s this about, dad?”

“Just take a seat, son.”


John sat in his grandfather’s Hadi Teherani chair. The gold legs still sparkled when the sun peeked in his grandfather’s library.

“John, I’ve spent my entire life trying to guide you in the right direction—to turn you into a successful young man, who can look back on his accomplishments one day, and take something away from them.”

John started nodding.

“You understand, then, that my chief concern is that you become an accomplished person, who can enjoy life and reflect with satisfaction on what he’s done, right?”

John continued nodding.

“And what, after thirty-six years, do you have to show for yourself?”

John stopped nodding.

“I’ll tell you what you have to show for it: Nothing. Nothing! You have done absolutely nothing! I got you into the best college in the goddamn region, for nothing! I got you a job at the top satellite station in the region, for nothing! All my hard work, for nothing!

Hundreds of thoughts hurried through John’s skull, none of them worth saying out loud (especially the one about unnecessary repetition).

“Do you have any idea what’s going on in this region Johnny? Do ya? Because I don’t think you do!”

John looked out the window, focusing on the ominous clouds creeping in.

“When I see you at work, you’re reading. When I see you at home, you’re reading. And on the weekends, when you should be socializing and making worthwhile connections, what are you doing? You’re sneaking out to the abandoned pinhead galleries of the city, with your ragtag team of lesbians and hipsters.”

“Kelly isn’t a lesbian—“

“That doesn’t matter goddamn it! What matters is that you are ignoring your true potential as a critic on my show! You can help this region understand its value again, and regain its glory! Do you not care about Region IV, Airstrip 2.0156 of Land Mass 7?”

A couple of John’s former thoughts began circulating through his skull again. Suddenly, he remembered the rhyme he scribbled on the napkin some time ago, and decided it was time for the hero to be bold.



“I don’t want to work for Nation News anymore.”

“You… you don’t want to work for me anymore?



“I, I sorta want to be a po–”

“I took you to all the best parties. I had you meet all the best people in the region. And for what? For what?! For you to throw it all away?! Thirty-six years of hard work, just so you could do something different?”

“I, I want to be a po–”

“I don’t want to hear it.”


“No, this ends right now John, and I know how to set you straight. Apparently all those years of patriotic upbringing, drilling you day after day on world news and the fate of this proud region, which as it stands may lose its autonomy to the crooked neo-commies, did nothing, NOTHING FOR YOU! No, this is going to take drastic measures. You have too much talent to be whatever it is you want to be. You will air the message of truth and justice all over the world, and you will do it first thing after you leave this room.”

John gulped.

His father quickly regained his composure, took a deep breath, and smiled at his only son.

“You see, John, every human being has a fear—the thing they fear the most in this world of ours. It may be a live burial—the thought of clawing at the casket as you gasp for air—or drowning in a pool of questionably clean chlorine water, while a fully clothed lifeguard sleeps off a hangover. Or perhaps you fear being impaled by a speeding javelin, as you judge the distance of an Olympic throw. There are even cases where it is something quite trivial, not even fatal.”

John had heard this last line before somewhere. His father smiled, and took out a lighter.

“In your case, John, the worst thing in the world happens to be waste.”

He knew imminent pain was about to be inflicted on him in some form, but he wasn’t immediately capable of putting two and two together. But then he saw the pile of books resting behind his father, and his fears were affirmed. He instantly recognized Damon’s A Blake Dictionary, the complete works of Tennyson and Wordsworth, Homage to Catalonia, War and Peace, Brave New World, Miss Lonelyhearts and, worst of all, a book on Jonathan Swift. And he knew his father didn’t read.

“You can’t—you wouldn’t! You wouldn’t!”

“Do you remember, John, the time your mother once sold a manuscript of one of your precious authors—Hux-ul, was it?—so she could pay for our Iranian bath tubs? Remember how you grew ill for three months, moping around the house with a hundred and one degree fever and mumbling unintelligible words under your breath? Remember that feeling?”

John cringed with fear. The prospect of what his father had planned for him caused him to sweat profusely. His hands refused to stop perspiring.

“John, I’m your father, so I’m only doing what’s best for you. Accept a seat as a critic on one of our shows, and be happy for the rest of your life. Or Swift gets it.”

John tried to control himself.

“This isn’t necessary! Please don’t do it—let’s talk about this!”

But his father had already reached for the Swift book, walking with it towards his son in parental defiance.

“I’ve seen you reading this before, John. Swift’s… ‘A Modest Proposal,’ right? Last copy around, I hear. My father used to love him too. Read all of his works—used to rabble on about it to me when I was young. Told me to read the works of all these great men one day. But you know what, as industrious as he was, as successful as he became, he had it wrong, and so do you! Yes, he was innovative in building his anti-aging pharmaceutical company, but look what happened to him! Nearly lost all his money to lawsuits, all because two people nearly died from his drug. If he hadn’t gotten out early, John, he would have been finished. Finished!”

John’s father paused, thinking hard about the words that came to him next.

“And you know what he told me, John? He told me to raise you in the way I knew best. And well, John, this is the best way I know.”

John’s father opened the book, looked at page one, flicked his lighter on with his other hand, and held it inches away from the page.

“They say you can burn a piece of paper at 449 degrees. How about we find out?”

John knew this was no time to correct his father. He pressed onward with more acceptable dialogue.

“Dad! Stop! This is crazy!”

John’s father set the flame to the right-corner of the page. The flame was a quarter of the way down the bind within half a second.

“Dad! No!”


John’s heart pumped at an incredible speed, as he fidgeted back and forth uncontrollably in his chair. Everything he stood for, every principle of literature and education that drove him to the forgotten bookshelves of his father’s library, was being burned mercilessly at the seams. His lips quivered; his eyes watered. His palms could not grab hold of the arm rests—they just slid off, his wrists banging against the stern wood of his grandfather’s chair. His stomach knotted up all over; his bowels were ready to release their neurotic encasings. His mind was ready to give up.

“I’ll do it! I’ll do it! Stop burning the page! I’ll do it! Don’t touch the books! Just stop!”

The shaking continued, and he burst into a loud mournful wailing, but his father continued to stand at his side. They seemed light years apart, but John could hear the silence that infused the air. The burning had stopped.