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Joseph O’Neill’s “The Referees”: a Tale of Alienation 

Pantheon Books, 2018

Central to Joseph O’Neill’s short story “The Referees” is an embarrassing predicament: Rob Karlsson needs to apply for co-op housing in NYC but cannot, in all his circle of acquaintances, find two people to write him a personal reference.  The short story treats the theme of alienation and dislocation, motifs of O’Neill’s short story collection Good Trouble.  

First, Rob asks his college friend from NYU, Michael, who is now an attorney, for a reference.  Michael recounts to Rob a quirky situation with his neighbor in his apartment building: After being a disagreeable alcoholic, his neighbor is now intent on befriending him.  Though Michael doesn’t want to be “an asshole,” befriending his neighbor is out of the question; so it’s just a matter of how to finesse the situation.  This hints once again at the theme of alienation and a lack human connection, like several other short stories in Good Trouble.  

After reestablishing their rapport over drinks, “[t]he old back and forth is still there” (55), Rob finally asks Michael for the character reference which he needs to join the co-op.  Michael agrees promptly.  But then he emails Rob a bizarre, legalistic response, denying his request for a reference:  “On reflection, I don’t think I can do this” (56).  Michael does not consider their college friendship an adequate basis for a personal reference, considering he knows little about the “post-collegiate” Rob.  The cold, formal tone of the letter is both absurd and also solidifies for the reader the impression of Rob’s lack of human connection.  

The setting of urban living, apartment dwellers and co-ops, in this case New York City, is relevant.  Here associations can be superficial and transactional. Rob’s sole reason for social intercourse is to obtain his letter of reference, a fact that may precipitate the rejection he encounters.  Such is the case in his next revisiting of an old friendship.    

Whereas Michael is abrupt and inscrutable, Rob’s former best friend Billie is an even more unpleasant character.  Rob admits, “I don’t really want to be in touch with him again, unless it’s an emergency” (60).  The insufferable Billie aspired to found a start-up, though he never comes up with a purpose and mission of this hypothetical start up.  When Billie was looking for a place in Manhattan, he stayed with Rob.  He wouldn’t consider Brooklyn.  Having an address in Manhattan, the egoist had declared, “is a question of dignity” (63).  The friendship ended unceremoniously due to Billie’s disagreeableness (or his toxic positivity).  When Rob asks him for a character reference, the protagonist’s sole objective, Billie responds via same-day mail and a neatly folded letter, containing only an expletive aimed at Rob.  It was a black-hearted practical joke of significant malice. 

His ex-wife similarly rejects Rob’s request for a reference, considering such involvement in each other’s lives “unhealthy” (58).  It is another misunderstanding; Rob did not want to restart the relationship, he just wanted the letter.  Her refusal makes the protagonist sink deeper into his alienation.  His Kafkaesque search for a referee continues.  

The one person that comes through is Paul, a relative whom Rob knew little.  To show just how tenuous this connection is, Paul asks Rob to simply write the personal reference himself, which Paul will then sign.  The exercise of writing his own personal reference letter is at once pathetic, but also cathartic for Rob.  Though all his acquaintances and former friends and lovers find him to be unfit for an affirmation of character, in the letter of reference written by himself, Rob explains why he’s actually not such a bad guy, and in fact rather a good guy.  

One interpretation of “The Referees” is how subjective other people’s impressions of us are, how unfairly we can be judged by others; and how ultimately we are the arbiters of our personal merits as human beings, and indeed residents of co-ops.  On the other hand, one should like to live a life in which one doesn’t have to impose on such distant relations and estranged friends in order to obtain two references of character.  In that sense, it is a cautionary tale. 

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