Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, January 20, 2008
By Roger Rosenblatt
Ecco. 225 pp. $23.95
THE PIG DID IT
By Joseph Caldwell
Delphinium. 195 pp. $22.95
Oh, babe, you're going to squeal with delight over the two little novels I've rooted out this week. Each is a succulent comedy that involves a pig, and they're written by witty writers who aren't afraid to ham it up.
The first is by Roger Rosenblatt, who I thought was terminally serious until last year when I read his marvelous Lapham Rising about the excesses of the super-rich in the Hamptons. This time out of the pen, he's written an academic satire greased by the kind of insight and rage that could come only from enduring a thousand stultifying faculty meetings. (Long before he gained national attention as a journalist, author and playwright, he was a young star at Harvard in the '70s; now he teaches at Stony Brook University.)
Of course, the litter of academic satires is already very large. After classics from Kingsley Amis, Vladimir Nabokov, Malcolm Bradbury, Mary McCarthy, Richard Russo, Jane Smiley, Tom Wolfe and others, Beet doesn't break any new ground, but it certainly holds its own in this well-furrowed field. Again and again, I wanted to call up old colleagues still toiling away in the groves of academe and tell them about hysterical moments in this book.
Rosenblatt starts off by noting with mock solemnity that for 250 years Beet has been one of America's most prestigious colleges. It began with the beneficence of Nathaniel Beet, "the wealthiest pig farmer in the New England colonies," which accounts for the college's porcine traditions, including its motto: " Deus Libri Porci" (God, Books, Pigs). But recently the college has been wallowing in despair; its gigantic endowment has somehow withered away. As the novel opens, the craven chairman announces that he's decided to postpone closing the college to give the faculty time to come up with a new curriculum that will "attract more paying undergraduates, more grants, more alumni gifts."
The person appointed to find this impossible solution is a brilliant young English professor named Peace Porterfield. He's a dedicated teacher and scholar, the one sane, thoughtful man in a mad system of unchecked self-importance -- an idealized version, surely, of young Rosenblatt himself, on a campus rife with the most inane expressions of professional egotism and political correctness. (The faculty prevails upon the town council "to replace the Slow Children street signs with Please Be Careful As Younger People May Be Entering the Roadways signs.")
These aspects of academia are so well pre-satirized in real life that it's a challenge to exaggerate them, but Rosenblatt pigs out with one satiric observation after another. Beet College offers "Native American Crafts and Casino Studies; the Sensitivity and Diversity Council; the Fur and Ivory Audiovisual Center; Ethnicity, Gender and Television Studies; Little People of Color; Humor and Meteorology; Bondage Studies; Serial Killers of the Northwest; Wiccan History." This is the kind of campus that awarded "a plaster-of-paris bust of Rosie O'Donnell" to the male professor most sensitive to women's issues, but then refused to let him into the meeting because he was a man.
The most priceless scenes are the meetings in which poor Dr. Porterfield struggles to come up with a sensible curriculum while his colleagues spout off. One of the fine arts professors insists on singing her comments. It's a kind of Mad Hatter's tea party for the intelligentsia, where emotions run "the gamut from sneering contempt to indifferent contempt."
There are enough direct hits here to put any good liberal's snout out of joint, but Rosenblatt also sticks it to the students with a series of bitterly satiric episodes. The co-eds at Beet are spoiled brats who adopt the pose of '60s radicalism without any political substance whatsoever. Their leader is a conniving Southern belle named after Martha Stewart who adopts the nom de guerre "Matha" -- "the female Math."
Beet gets even sillier toward the end -- the final scene is something you might find in a classic American musical -- but the novel is a wickedly funny counterattack on the forces threatening liberal arts education. In the current mania for market efficiencies, these idealistic institutions seem endangered, but as Peace reminds his wife, "That's what a liberal arts college is about -- making pigs fly."
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Joseph Caldwell's artful new comedy also involves an English teacher and a pig, but its humor is more charming than sardonic. The Pig Did It, the first of a planned trilogy from this New York writer, takes place on the richly described western shore of Ireland. Aaron McCloud, a slightly pompous, 32-year-old man, recently spurned in love, has come to this gorgeous area "so he could, in solitary majesty, feel sorry for himself." He has an elaborate program of self-pity all planned out, ready to enjoy. "His stretch of beach would be deserted," Caldwell writes, in a voice at once sympathetic and gently mocking. "His solitude would be inviolate, his loneliness unobserved and unremarked except by the sea itself. . . . Solemn would be his step, stricken his gaze. Only the vast unfathomable sea could be a worthy spectator to his sorrows."
But those luxurious plans are immediately interrupted. No sooner does he arrive at his aunt's seaside home than an errant pig unearths a skeleton in the garden. His aunt Kitty recognizes its rotting clothing as that of a local roofer named Declan. She's sure he was done in by the pig's owner, Lolly, a wild beauty who was desperate to seduce the poor man. But in making this accusation, Kitty describes the murder with such passion and specificity that Aaron suspects his aunt killed Declan herself. (Revisionism comes naturally to her; she supports herself by writing "corrected" versions of classic novels like Jude the Obscure and Jane Eyre.)
Before Aaron can make up his mind, another neighbor arrives who may have killed the man in a fit of jealous rage. The only thing these three mad suspects can agree on is that Aaron is crazy for wanting to call in the police.
Over the next two days, he tries to get to the bottom of this mystery, find time to mourn his broken heart and get Lolly to notice him, but strange events keep interrupting, ancient quarrels keep reasserting themselves, and that pig keeps following him.
The macabre comedy plays out in sparkling dialogue, including some hilarious speeches that are both incantations of Irish mythology and masterful bits of parody. Caldwell is a successful playwright, too, and his perfect ear for the non sequiturs of real conversation is a constant delight.
If you love the Irish, if you've ever fallen in love or been spurned in love -- heck, if you love bacon -- you must read this irresistible novel.
Th-th-th-th-that's all, folks. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.