Go through Peace Corps training in the early or mid-sixties? Whether you did or didn’t, here’s a book that will take you back. For ’60s RPCVs who can get hold of a copy, in fact, Weiss’s sharp, funny, rueful memoir might serve as a kind of blood-curling recovered memory.
As you read, it all comes flooding back those days and nights crammed with pointless or irrelevant lectures, never enough sleep for anybody to function well, and all those hymns to American resourcefulness and individuality. And at the same time, the Selection shrinks were sending the clear message that if you were a tad more individualistic that they deemed suitable, you’d be out on your ass. Some trainees of that era underwent survivalist exercises in the jungles of Puerto Rico, but surviving two months at Columbia or Georgetown required discipline and canniness too, and often the emotional equivalent of eating bugs for days on end.
Weiss’s book is also a reminder that while any one trainee who was too critical risked being selected out, in the famous Orwellian term Is it still used? Surely not. the Peace Corps did eventually get the point that academic training in the U.S. was largely a waste a time. By the end of the agency’s first decade, most training had been moved overseas and was more practical and realistic.
Another good thing about Weiss’s memoir published five years after the time it describes, the summer of 1963 is that it’s fun to read. He was an ambitious and talented young writer with an unpublished novel behind him when he entered training for a Peace Corps /Nigeria education project at age 25. You have to wonder how good a writer Weiss might have become, had he lived. In High Risk/High Gain, Weiss often strains for effects, and his narrative voice wobbles he’s Norman Mailer here, he’s Jack Karouac there, here he’s Mary McCarthy, there he’s J.P. Donleavy and sometimes you’re inclined to agree with the selection officers who considered Weiss a carping pain in the neck. But his intelligence is relentless, and he’s observant and witty about both people and institutions. Weiss tries hard, too, to be as honest about himself as he is about bumbling Columbia and the schizoid Peace Corps. Weiss’s is not one of the books that has made it onto one of the standard lists of Peace Corps memoirs I’d never heard of it until now and that’s too bad.
The high risk/high gain of the title was the term Selection used for trainees who were aggressively original thinkers and doers and who, when they arrived overseas, might either become brilliant overachievers or go up in flames. The agency knew from experience that either could happen.
As a brainy and opinionated MIT math graduate who had semi-bummed around in Cuba, Paris and Corfu, Weiss was a classic HR/HG. He had high expectations of himself and of the organization he was drawn to.
Weiss knew what he wanted despite the disapproval of his parents, who considered grad school a more sensible career move, and his girlfriend back in Chicago, who saw marriage as adventure enough and had no interest in two unpredictable years in Africa.
But Weiss envisioned the Peace Corps as an agency for the internationalization of America’s perceptions of itself, and he wanted to be part of that. Even more, he yearned for the first time to be part of anything. Having always fled from clubby gatherings, Weiss imagined finally connecting with a band of his type of people a kind of unarmed The Two Hundred Musketeers who together would apply their strength and keenness to African development, become wise in fixing societies, and then bring all that sophisticated virtue back home. I want to wrestle with the world, he told a shrink.
Weiss’s was a highly idealized sometimes verging-on-the-demented version of what the Peace Corps itself had in mind, and he was bound to be crushingly disappointed. He was, and it began, upon his arrival on campus, with the other trainees. Good God, were they young! Unspeakably, unthinkably young. These Wonderbread faces and daffodil smiles and china blue eyes and soft white arms and pumping vital hair, smooth and limber and American, bursting of orange juice and protein and fat good health . . . . Gnattering gaily, like spring dandelions, name tags already affixed, they were playing that old game, Do you know . . . ? I hadn’t the heart for it, edged around them and up to my room.
Nearly all the trainees remained throughout the program far too Wonderbread for Weiss’s tastes. But he did make friends with Fay, a Venice beach hipster he’s beautifully drawn her and JZ, a passionate earth mother who was driven nearly nuts by the selection police, who put JZ through the psychiatric wringer because her mother had spent time in an insane asylum.
Weiss’s greatest disappointment, however, was with Columbia and with the Peace Corps officials who claimed to welcome criticism but who refused to accept Weiss’s protestations that the university’s program was tedious and an exhausting waste of time. Weiss’s math lecturer was a doltish teachers college bore who had never set foot in Africa. The African studies lectures weren’t bad, but the information could have been gleaned more efficiently from reading a few books. Each trainee received a smattering of three Nigerian languages, a useless set-up dictated by politics. Weiss’s practice teaching in an uptown school was supervised by a burnt-out case with nothing to offer Weiss or his students.
Who would be selected?
Weiss thought his criticism of the program was under the circumstances restrained. (He did embarrass the math professor in class, a tactical misstep.) A selection official told Weiss he has was a contemptuous troublemaker, and he was warned to shape up, or else. When Weiss pressed the shrink on precisely what he could do to meet Selection’s personal-behavior standards, he was told to figure it out on his own.
Weiss wasn’t the only one with the selection uppermost in his mind. The trainees were consumed with it and little else. After a rocky start, the Peace Corps had become holy in American life by 1963, so you couldn’t just head home and tell the folks that the Peace Corps had found you not good enough. The trainees were seized by selection paranoia they imagined bugged rooms and spies everywhere. Weiss, making notes all the time (apparently for this book), was suspected briefly of being a double agent. In mid-August, the training program essentially collapsed when the trainees cut most activities for fear that they would say or do the wrong thing. Truancy was considered less risky than standing out in the crowd.
Weiss’s approach in High Risk/High Gain is novelistic each scene is meant to show something new and one of the ways he generates suspense is by making us care who in the end is selected to go to Nigeria and who is told, sorry, your problematical. You find yourself cheering when JZ makes the cut, and Fay, and Weiss. Although, Weiss’s assignment, he was told, would be a fairly cushy situation where he’d be given plenty of time to read, write, travel and, it was implied, not give anybody any crap. Weiss would be different, still the outsider.
One of the best scenes in the book is near the end, when Sargent Shriver shows up for a spirited group send-off. The atmosphere is electric as the Peace Corps highest of high priests, who’d just been reading Yevtushenko on the plane, rolled on, dropping pearls of inspiration about courage, about truth and freedom. Freedom of expression. Freedom of dissent. With banners waving and throats hoarsing themselves red, it’s all Weiss can do to keep himself final selection is hours away from standing up and yelling at Sarge that he’s tragically mistaken, that there is something rotten, terribly rotten, in the great American experiment afflicted by the greatest of American diseases: Playing-it-safe. Shriver paused for breath and I saw my opening, this bearded maniac rising from the twentieth row to tell the President’s brother-in-law how to save his creation Weiss wisely, for him, stayed in his seat, mum.
Sarge did get the word, otherwise, about the loopiness of most early Peace Corps training, and he and others eventually changed it for the better. Any Peace Corps archive ought to include Weiss’s book to show why those changes had become urgent. It’s not the most likable account of a bad training program Moritz Thompsen’s Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle and Mike Tidwell’s The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn compete for that honor. Yet High Risk/High Gain is both a valuable record of a classically awful training program and an entertaining exercise by a gifted young writer struggling toward a voice of his own.