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An accomplished nonfiction writer as well as a BU School of Law professor of constitutional and administrative law, Jay Wexler is more qualified than most to write a comic novel about a Supreme Court justice. Wexler clerked for Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and they remain friends (“She’s beloved,” he says), so he knows well the high court’s often-byzantine backstage proceedings.
Wexler’s debut novel, Tuttle in the Balance (Ankerwycke, December 2015), takes gleeful, hilarious, and sometimes poignant liberties with said proceedings. This is a good thing—we can only hope, for example, that the court’s sober business could not be hijacked by a spooked cat or that a private conference of the justices could deteriorate into a melee worthy of the Three Stooges.
Reminiscent of the comic romps of Christopher Buckley, but often tinged with the pathos of Philip Roth, the novel follows the incorrigible, if well-meaning, Ed Tuttle, whose postdivorce midlife crisis, existential angst, and robust sexual appetite turn the hallowed place upside down. The associate justice is on a collision course with absolutely everything and everyone in his life except his cherished adult daughter, who nudges him playfully, but with genuine concern, about the weight of his civil responsibilities. As a landmark pornography case looms and at long last TV cameras are soon to be admitted into the court on a trial basis, he comes undone, and in part inspired by a new obsession with the elusive writings of ancient philosopher Chuang Tzu (don’t ask), his increasingly bizarre behavior draws the concern of his colleagues. Among them is Chief Justice Janet Owens, who swiftly decks Tuttle after an attempted kiss. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Tuttle chides himself, in just one of a string of cringe-worthy moments in the book, which at the same time manages to be spot-on, even gripping, on matters of constitutional law.
Wexler has taught at LAW since 2001 and was awarded the Michael Melton Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2009. A former law clerk for Judge David Tatel on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, he is widely published in law reviews as well as in the Huffington Post, Mental Floss, Salon, and Slate. He has written two nonfiction books: Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battleground of the Church/State Wars and The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of Its Most Curious Provisions, with a third, When God Isn’t Green: A World-Wide Journey to Places Where Religious Practice and Environmentalism Collide, forthcoming. His website tells us that the Peabody, Mass., native “wore bad clothes and had a butthead hairdo” until he was 21. “Sad and insecure,” he went to Harvard College: “Anyone who says that college is the best four years of your life didn’t go to Harvard.”
Bostonia spoke with Wexler recently about his life as a novelist, educator, and legal scholar, and why being a US Supreme Court justice isn’t as difficult a job as people might think.
Wexler: I was writing another book, nonfiction, at the same time. I write the way other people train for marathons. For two or three years it was 12 pages long, and then it just clicked. I write at night and try to do a page a day. I just fit it in.
I do. I remember going to my son’s baseball practices and wandering around the outfield, thinking about my next plot points.
I have friends who are helpful readers. Richard Posner, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, read it and loved it. He sent me an email and called it a comic masterpiece. Somebody told him to read it because he loves cats.
Well, I’m a David Foster Wallace maniac, but I can’t try too hard to emulate him. I also like Richard Russo.
There are people who don’t like him as a character. The best quote I have is from an agent I sent it to who said, “It’s probably true that people with this much power are like this sometimes, but watching a 60-year-old man suffer like a 14-year-old girl, I found him pathetic.” Which my wife does, too. He’s horny and he’s not serious and he thinks about sex all the time.
His daughter is the one person he’s maintained a relationship with forever, and I tried to make it clear that he loves her and relies on her and thinks about her. There was no one else really to humanize him.
The brawl was fun to write, but you’ll notice nobody actually punches anybody. All the injuries are accidental. It’s pure slapstick.
I sent it to her, and was wondering if she might blurb it. She wrote me a kind letter saying her ethics prevented it. I think if she read anything, it was probably just the first paragraph. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor might like it, I think. From her book, she seems like a real person. When I was clerking at the court, there’s a tradition where clerks go out with other justices, and some of those lunches were fun. The Antonin Scalia lunch was fun, but Justice Clarence Thomas was the most fun of all, the most human, normal person.
He likes the boring cases, the lawyerly cases. The cases he hates are the ones everyone cares about, like the pornography case the court’s about to rule on in the book. I think he’s prepared for the cases. The thing is, it’s not that hard.
A lot of people could be a high court justice. Out of law school, you’re more qualified to be a judge than a first-year trial lawyer. In law school you read appellate opinions; that’s what law school teaches. Until recently, law graduates couldn’t do a deposition and take evidence. You could do the Supreme Court job in 50 hours a week. They’re very smart lawyers, but there are a thousand people who could be on the Supreme Court. They stay on until they’re 90 because it’s not overly taxing, it’s very interesting, and you have all this power. Most, like Tuttle, have anonymity—would you recognize Justice Kennedy on the street? They potentially have free time, yet they have this important and powerful position. So it’s sort of the ideal job.
The neighbor cat in the book stems from a real experience. When I was in law school, I was housesitting next to the house of E. J. Dionne, the Washington Post columnist, and I would worry when his cat meowed and I actually fed it, and that’s the whole story. In the book, I just like the idea of Tuttle having a conflict with his neighbor, who accuses him of stealing the cat. But the thing about the cat in the courthouse is, whenever I teach humor writing I say it’s always good to add an animal or a baby or a drunken person, someone or something uncontrollable to add a little chaos. No matter how serious things are, the cat doesn’t care.
Former students have read it. I’m not hiding it, obviously. The BU Law School News did a piece on it. I’m not making a big deal about it and no students have yet mentioned to me. But with writing, paintings, and drawings, I’m known as a weird, quirky person. It doesn’t affect my teaching.