A college character takes on foes, friends

April 26, 1993|By Judith Wynn | Judith Wynn,Contributing Writer

Benjamin "Chappie" Puttbutt III, the hero of Ishmael Reed's zany, scattershot ninth novel, wants to learn Japanese by spring. His father is a black U.S. general. His mother is a black U.S. intelligence agent. Consequently, "Puttbutt always seemed to be marching as though life were some kind of parade ground." He does know how to look out for No. 1: If Japan's going to rule the next century, better take private language lessons.

As "Japanese by Spring" opens, Puttbutt has nearly ingratiated himself into a tenured position teaching English at Jack London College in Oakland, Calif. For years he has courted the powerful feminist faction ("Memorized every mediocre line by Zora Neale Hurston"), suffered moronic racist taunts from rich students, and published a scholarly, post-Moynihan work entitled "Blacks, America's Misfortune."

Puttbutt's an anti-affirmative-action neoconservative, but he gets no respect from the "neolithic" or the "paleolithic" conservatives who run his college. Meanwhile, a hidden enemy -- someone very close to Puttbutt -- keeps pulling strings to frustrate our pragmatic hero's career plans.

"Japanese by Spring" is best when it satirizes that tottering tower of Babel -- the U.S. liberal arts school. Puttbutt's mysterious Japanese teacher, Dr. Yamato, takes over Jack London College and makes Puttbutt his staff hit man. It's fun to watch the worm turn as Puttbutt cracks the whip at his old tormentors ("The only difference between you and the women in the Klan," Puttbutt tells an aggressive women's studies professor, "is that the women in the Klan dress better.")

Revenge sours when Yamato clamps down on whites and American-born Asians with Japanese-biased IQ tests and a security force of martial artists trained to break up student dissent. Puttbutt is tempted to help his former enemies overthrown Yamato. And there you have the novelistic part of "Japanese by Spring."

The anti-novelistic part consists of the musings of a character named Ishmael Reed, who occasionally drops by to visit Puttbutt. Like Puttbutt, Ishmael Reed wants to forge his own brand of conservatism. His inspiration is Africa's old Yoruba kingdom -- a city-building culture -- that weakened and broke up around the time of the removal of black slaves to America.

"Was the ideal that West Africa would eventually become a global leader the only thing that attracted Ishmael Reed to Yoruba?" the narrator ponders. "Or [was it] his need to cultivate a conservatism based upon the spirit of Yoruba so as to distance himself from Puttbutt conservatives, who could only practice their conservatism on blacks?"

Ishmael Reed's vivid opinions on the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas debacle, the L.A. riots, the gulf war, and collegiate squabbles over multicultural canon-busting gradually overwhelm the story. (Multiculturalism will beat old fuddy-duddy Eurocentrism in "The Battle of the Books," says Ishmael Reed, because all true artists are on the side of diversity.) Unfortunately, "Japanese by Spring" loses steam and its characters quietly fade away as Ishmael Reed contemplates his long-lost Yoruban Eden -- a real pity since that fallen empire is such a fascinating cautionary tale for our own diverse and divisive times.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Japanese by Spring."

Author: Ishmael Reed.

Publisher: Atheneum.

/# Length, price: 225 pages, $20.

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