Moo-ing through the intrigues of academia

March 26, 1995|By Helen Chappell | Helen Chappell,Special to The Sun

"Moo," by Jane Smiley. 414 pages. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $24.

The economic inclination of the publishing industry to forsake literary fiction in favor of trendy, trashy genre novels may not signal the decline and fall of Western Civilization, but it does not bode well for the future of the serious novel. So, it's good to see Jane Smiley, a most serious novelist, prospering. Her last book won a Pulitzer. "A Thousand Acres," a re-telling of King Lear, was as harsh as the wind blowing across her Midwestern landscapes. Moo, her latest, is billed as a comic novel. It's more like good soap opera.

Set in an enormous Midwestern state university nicknamed Moo U for its focus on agribusiness, the many, many interwoven stories focus on the many, many denizens of this olive grove of academe. It's a ripe subject. It would be hard to find a microcosm populated with a more self-important, auto-fertilized population than a university. Court life at Versailles was shooting ducks in a barrel compared to modern campus machinations. Smiley, teaching at Iowa State University, writes knowingly enough about her subject to suggest a roman a clef.

All the academic types are here; floating on clouds of soft money and scholastic scheming. There's Dr. Gift, the powerful and soulless economist, who refers to his students as customers and Mrs. Walker, secretary to the hapless president, whose God-like manipulations, computer and otherwise, really run Moo U.

While the Lady X makes bean loaf and raises their four children, Chairman X, the old '60s radical, is having yet another affair, this time with Cecelia, unrequited love of first novelist Tim, who grovels for literary status while teaching creative writing to wannabe undergraduate Gary, whose stories rip off the lives of his friends, four bright-eyed freshman roommates, while Elaine, the conniving development director, who's willing to do anything to procure that soft money, is courting Arlen, a deceptively folksy chicken magnate who . . . well, you get the idea. Soap writers have been doing it for years.

All these characters move in and out of a plot that concerns,

among many, many other intrigues, a secret project to destroy a rain forest in Costa Rica; another secret project to create a revolutionary piece of farm equipment and a third to breed a new species of animal. All of this, in addition to usual and unusual romantic tangles, power manipulations, political-personal feuds and underhanded tenure tracking make for an entertaining read, if you can remember who's doing what to who and why.

This plot and cast of thousands (well, about 15 apiece, including a hog, when I stopped counting) makes it hard for a reader to keep everyone straight, but Smiley's clever storytelling weaves everything together into a well-crafted whole.

Dying is easy, comedy is hard. A true comic novel requires a finer sense of timing and a voice a shade lighter than Smiley's; drama is more suited to her dark style. But "Moo" is a good read. Her fans will not be disappointed by this textured experiment in social satire, and new readers should enjoy her terse observations. "Moo" could become the intelligent reader's beach book.

Helen Chappell is the author of Tales from Oysterback, a short-fiction column that appears once a month in The Sun. She is also a contributor to Chesapeake Bay Magazine and Tidewater Times. She has written 28 books.

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