Sex, drugs, and midlife crisis: a British academic’s life spins out of control in a labored comedy, second-novelist Harding’s first US publication.
Michael Cole is a university English professor in an unidentified English city. His specialty is poet and cleric John Donne, “a like mind” because of his fear of death. Approaching 50, Cole broods obsessively about mortality when he’s not looking for another student to seduce (his long-suffering wife Alison is a former one) or feeding his coke habit. His blood pressure is so high his doctor insists he wear a monitor for a day, the exact same day that Cole sees his way clear to bedding the delectable 20-year-old Tamsin Graves. Coitus interruptus, alas: Tamsin notices the monitor and concludes Cole is taping their lovemaking. And that’s the feeble plot hook from which Cole’s subsequent problems hang. Tamsin lodges a complaint with the ethics committee, and Cole is suspended pending an investigation. Meanwhile, he’s started hallucinating. Three dead relatives pop up at crucial moments; flashbacks (little more than filler) give us their history. Cole’s living family is also a problem. Alison must be kept in the dark about his suspension; this involves subterfuge (Harding loves split-second timing routines, but their comic punch doesn’t connect). Cole’s two small boys are a handful. Nor must we forget the Old Soldier, as Cole fondly dubs his penis, for which he feels a fretful love that he denies Alison; too often lately he’s been missing in action. Finally, there’s the cocaine, which almost leads to Cole’s arrest; fortunately the cops are amenable to a nice fat bribe from his dealer. The final nail in his coffin is his climactic appearance to give the prestigious Kappelheim lecture, in a bid to become head of department; his buffoonery just reminds us how far we are from the nuanced academic intrigue of David Lodge’s novels.
The drama of the midlife crisis has never seemed more shopworn.