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by James Hynes

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-312-20332-2
Publisher: Picador

Dr. Faustus toils thanklessly at an august midwestern university in Hynes’s latest dispatch from the culture wars (academic division).

Adding injury to insult, Nelson Humboldt loses a finger in a freak accident minutes after getting fired from his lowly position as an adjunct lecturer at Minnesota’s University of the Midwest. When the finger’s surgically reattached, it still hurts, despite the assurances he’s been given about severed nerve endings. But the tradeoff for a little discomfort is great: Nelson can now compel other people to do his bidding whenever he touches them with the infernal digit. A lesser mortal would be looking for love, wealth, or fame, but Nelson, once he tests his power by getting his university-subsidized lease extended and landing a couple of composition courses, wants only one thing (and here Hynes’s insight into the academic mentality is at its most piercing): control of Midwest’s English department, a covey of narrow-minded sharks who congregate only to preen or exchange insults. Starting with an unholy alliance he makes with his chair, Anthony Pescecane (think Stanley Fish with a smidge of Frank Lentricchia), to unmask the author of a series of taunting anonymous letters, Nelson soon finds himself catapulted into the department’s catbird seat, playing off postcolonial theorists, Celebrity Studies poseurs, and lesbian terrorists against each other in order to champion the tenure bid of his frumpy officemate, Vita Deonne, a woman with unsuspected depths. The resulting plot, which lurches from one wild tableau to the next, simply proves once more that hell is other people with tenure. But Hynes (Publish and Perish, 1997, etc.) bathes his ship of overeducated fools in such luscious detail (the trends! the allusions! the hairstyles!) that he vaults to the head of the crowded class of academic satirists.

As many belly laughs, despite all the fire and brimstone, as David Lodge—and you don’t even have to know what a paternoster or O-levels are.