The administrative heart of a great university - a knot of intimately entangled personal and professional lives - is, if you think about it, a natural stage for a drama of suspense. And that is very much the opening mood of Morris Philipson's new novel set in an institution that's a dead ringer for Yale. On the administrative ladder, the hero, Conrad Taylor, is one step below the provost and two below the president. He's executive vice president in charge of the undergraduate college, a job in which he finds uncommon pleasure - savoring the decisions, aware of their subtle consequences. Even the paper work has a certain charm for Conrad Taylor. He is, in short, remarkably suited to his work and altogether a thoughtful, decent sort of fellow.
Then, in a single winter's day, in his elegant office and walnut-paneled conference room, Conrad Taylor's orderly schedule is shattered by a series of surprises, each touching a pressure point in his complex life. There's an anonymous note informing him that his new, young wife, Isabel, is having an affair with another man, the news that his office has been robbed (it's an inside job), the discovery that one faculty member has been bilking the university or the National Science Foundation, and another may have plagiarized an entire book. And when the university provost turns up at the local hospital with a massive coronary thrombosis, Taylor realizes - suddenly and to his shame - that he wouldn't mind a bit if the provost died (quickly and painlessly, of course) and he (Conrad) got the job. By the time these and other mysteries are resolved Taylor has learned a good deal about the true nature of his ambitions and exactly how much he is a man in charge.
Philipson sets his plot in fast forward gear against a background rich in the details of university life, peopling the campus with well-drawn and entertaining academic figures. He converts the daily grind of administration into drama: In a scene between Taylor and a boy who has been turned down for admission Philipson is at his best - building suspense and describing Taylor's manipulation of the crisis.
With it's swift delineation of Taylor's personality and its fast-breaking turns of plot, Philipson's first chapter really takes off and - much later - the story comes to and interesting climax and unexpected denouement. It's in the middle that this novel loses altitude dangerously - when Philipson moves the story off-campus to the playgrounds of Aspen, Carmel and St. Moritz. These flashbacks to Conrad's courtship of the beautiful, self-absorbed Isabel are a bit slick and rather painfully self-conscious. Early in their love affair, there is the following exchange: "'Who are you?' he asked. 'I wish I could know you.' 'If I were a fabric I'd be moire silk,' she replied. 'If I were a stone, I'd be an emerald. If I were a flower, I'd be a peony.'" She laughs when she says it, but . . . The romance is an unsuccessful graft of sex and glamor onto an otherwise solid and well-told tale. Isabel comes across as the fantasy creature every 53-year-old college administrator recovering from ulcers dreams he'll find in Aspen bar. In this novel, the ivory tower seems alive and real and gutsy; the "real" world outside is slightly make-believe.
For all his authority with the academic scene (Philipson has taught at the University of Chicago and has been director of the University of Chicago Press) there are a couple of gaffes about life within and without the ivy-covered walls that threw me off. For example: There is no provost at Vassar; you don't "volley" for serve in squash (you don't even "rally" - you spin the racket); and its a mystery to me why Taylor would think Washington, D.C., is "the only European city in the United States. 'European' in the sense of fearing . . . any disappearance - even an unexplained absence of a few hours - might mean a political kidnapping."
But these are minor flaws. All told, this is a diverting and competently put-together story - the kind to savor during sabbatical leave or in between semesters.