A comic novel proves an agreeable change of pace for the ordinarily serious-minded Smiley (A Thousand Acres, 1991, etc.). At an unnamed Midwestern state university familiarly known as Moo U., the academic year 1989-90 is not going well. Budget cuts have been imposed by the state's yahoo governor; the faculty will have to clean their own offices, and food services will be taken over by McDonald's, which has no use for the unionized kitchen staff. Hostilities simmer between Dr. Lionel Gift, self-satisfied apostle of free-market economics, and "Chairman X," an unreconstructed '60s radical who heads the horticulture department. Other staff members jostling for position include Ivar Harstad, the university's ineffectual provost; Loraine Walker, his secretary, who really runs the place (and isn't above quietly shuffling money in and out of departments, depending on who gains her favor); associate English professor Timothy Monahan, whose social climbing in New York publishing is one of the book's funniest sequences; and earthy Helen Levy, professor of foreign languages, who likes to make life uncomfortable for her pompous male colleagues. A few students are sketched with equal incisiveness, though readers are unlikely to get emotionally involved with any of the characters. The fun comes from watching Smiley expertly juggle a huge cast in a convoluted plot that somehow manages to connect Gift's involvement with a sinister corporation that wants to mine gold from a virgin rain forest to a crazy local farmer's invention of a revolutionary new agricultural technique. The satire -- of academic careerism, politics both left and right (though the conservatives get the worst lashing), and human foolishness of all sorts -- stings but is never heavy-handed. As always in Smiley's fiction, expert storytelling propels the narrative forward, compensating here for a slightly chilly tone. Not as intellectually or morally challenging as the Pulitzer Prize-winner can be at her best, but Smiley coasting is still more stimulating than most writers trying their hardest.