Mocking the academy while probing history

March 09, 1997|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

"I Met a Man Who Wasn't There," by Mary Rose Callaghan. Marion Boyars Publishers. 297 pages. $24.95.

Is it too late for academic satire? Are too many onlookers persuaded that the academy is its own best possible parody? In her sixth novel, Irish writer Mary Rose Callaghan attempts to breathe new life into this faltering genre.

Her irreverent tale of academe is interwoven with a colorful historical fiction of New York's Tammany Hall days. Unfortunately, the reader is left unsure what these stories are doing in the same book, and only more convinced of the current poverty of novels that turn an ironical eye on higher education.

Callaghan's novel transports a best-selling Irish novelist to the fictional Sweetmount College near Philadelphia. Anne O'Brien is not, however, simply Irish: she is the Irish daughter of Irish-American parents, and a frequent flier across the Atlantic. And Callaghan (who herself spent 20 years in the United States) doesn't use this outsider's eye simply to expose the absurdities of the American academic scene.

To be sure, there are the by now obligatory swipes at "the odious doctrine of PC." In an appeal for silkworms' rights, one student cries, "You're wearing silk! They boil them to make it!" But if Anne's adoptive academy is beset by the dour spirit of correct thinking, her whole America is haunted by the dapper ghost of Marcus Quilligan O'Neill.

Appearing in such unlikely places as an airplane cabin and a swimming pool, Anne's infamous late grandfather repeatedly presses her to write his biography. Working to uncover the secrets of this New York Mafia lawyer's career, Anne is also on the trail of her own identity. Just how crooked was her most American forebear - and is her own heart back in Ireland with her prodigal husband, or in America with a romancing colleague? Is said colleague just being scapegoated by the PC forces at Sweetmount, or does he harbor secrets as dark as her grandfather's?

Admirably, Callaghan aims to broaden her inherited academic plot (the familiar parade of cocktail party, classroom and bedroom scenes) by throwing in the imaginative ancestral ghost story. But the book is as divided as its heroine. Trying for an alloy of self-discovery, historical intrigue and incisive satire, it fails to deliver any of these goods.

In simpler times, and in the hands of sharper writers, the satire was more than enough. Happily for the reader, the classic comic novels of 1950s academic life are all still in print: Mary McCarthy's "The Groves of Academe," Randall Jarrell's response McCarthy, "Pictures from an Institution," and Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim." Also available in paperback is David Lodge's more recent pair of brilliant spoofs that anticipate Callaghan's cross-cultural conceit, "Changing Places" and "Small World." Perhaps today's embattled academic scene will come to life in novels when somebody masters the art of making fiction stranger than truth.

Laura Demanski is writing a doctoral dissertation on Victorian literature and culture. She previously worked at Simon & Schuster and the University of Chicago Press.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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