An enigmatic pied piper conjures the spirit of ’70s campus life in this baroque coming-of-age novel.
College sophomore Brian is eager to have his horizons expanded, which makes campus polymath and mystery man Hollis an ideal mentor. A cross between Baudelaire and Mr. Spock, Hollis toggles between sloshed romantic decadence and cold intellectualism. Equally conversant in the blues, Greek mythology and neural signal processing, he speaks French, German and Chinese, is a connoisseur of wine and hash, has a shadowy relationship with an intelligence agency and divides his spare time between writing poetry and shooting pool. Needless to say, women are hypnotized by him, despite his fetish of photographing their eyes during sex. Brian accompanies Hollis in his barhopping and partying, hanging on his every word and trying to fathom the demons that drive his troubled relationships and occasional disappearances. (The last, and best, third of the novel comprises a trove of documents–report cards, psychiatric evaluations, news articles–that pointilistically reveal Hollis’ dark past.) Barons steeps the story in Ford Administration detail–Disco! Saturday Night Live! The Equal Rights Amendment!–and skillfully draws a varied cast of characters who evoke the era’s life and language, as lingering radical-chic sentiment moved into a dawning age of psychobabble. The author’s sure feel for setting, unfortunately, is somewhat spoiled by Hollis’ anachronistic presence. Yes, the ’70s brought bohemian dissoluteness to the masses, but Hollis’ take on it–â€œI envisioned myself in a French cabaret...Toulouse-Lautrec was tending to the absinthe”–sounds more 1875 than 1975. Worse, Hollis, who dominates the story, is a bit of a bore. He wears his learning heavily–â€œYou can’t take a film like Oktober and compare it to City Lights...it is like saying bronzes from first millennium Luristan are inferior to those from China’s Shang Dynasty”–and his allusive, showily erudite discourses continue endlessly without conveying any compelling truth.
Period fiction that often feels like an interminable undergrad bull session.