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An oddly earthy study of academia

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By Pat Wellington

We readers like our favorite authors to stick to what they do best – like John Grisham’s legal thrillers. But authors have a way of wanting to try something different. I picked up Jane Smiley’s attempt at satire in a book set in a Midwestern agrarian university fondly called Moo U.

It was bound to disappoint someone like me who loved her modern retelling of the King Lear tragedy in A Thousand Acres (which won the Pulitzer Price in 1992) and the touching Accidental Tourist – both made into fine movies. Moo will appeal to readers who like wacky characters and are not bothered by lack of structure because the novel is a loosely connected series of pen portraits and an encapsulation of the 1980s, a time when “the university” is coming under heavy financial pressure and communism is collapsing.

Roughly, the time frame is one academic year in which Nils Harstad, Dean of Extension, at 50 decides to marry and father six children, Chairman X, a flaming liberal, confesses to his lover that he never married the woman he’s lived with for 20 years and has had children with because he lost track of time.

There are other confessions as well involving lesbian secretary Loraine Walker who’s really running the place because she knows where the bodies are buried. Of special interest is Smiley’s undergraduate wannabe writer, Gary Olson, who struggles to revise his story over and over again. Is it a revealing side of the author’s life perhaps?

Not only is Moo U facing financial trouble but also pressure to change with the times in diversifying traditional fields. All this is seen from the perspectives of faculty, students, administrators and staff.

And at the center of unbridled narcissism and ambition or lack of it is a hog experiment that sophomore Bob Carlson, a work study student, is part of: “Just now, as Bob entered, Earl Butz was at the trough, but he noted Bob’s arrival, acknowledging the young man with a flick of his ears and a switch of his little tail. Earl Butz was a good worker, who applied himself to his assigned task with both will and enjoyment. Already today he had cleaned the back end of his trough, and now he was working industriously toward the front ee Earl Butz had been eating for eighteen months, which was exactly how old he was. He was white, white as cream cheese or sugar, and fastidious.”

Although there’s no real plot, there’s plenty of movement as characters move in and out of each other’s lives, and especially each other’s beds. Some may find Moo wickedly witty and a sly indictment of higher education in America.

Pat Wellington is a retired English professor, freelance writer, and faculty member of On Top of the World’s Master the Possibilities, who shares her passion for books with others.