Billed as Black Lizard's first ""comic noir"" novel, Petracca's slapdash plot bounces from the imponderable to the impossible, but the highpoints are the literate jokes and pity-the-poor-English-major insights (""Jane Austen enthusiasts will sparkle you to death with their conversation,"" etc.). Stuck mid-dissertation, Harmon Nails decides to have his Doctor Syntax book collection appraised by the famous Ernst Gablonzer and his researcher Lissa. But then the books are stolen and Harmon's attempts to reclaim them lead to several picaresque attempts on his life (van ramming; gas leaks), as well as several lovelorn hours unraveling Lissa's parentage (unknowingly, Ernst is her real dad). Meanwhile, Laurence Sterne, Lissa's beserk stepdad and founder of the nutty Combist League, has fallen under Harmon's and scholar/cop Freitag's scrutiny; Harmon joins the League, meets Rick, who's really Marianne; loses Lissa to Freitag; beds Rick/Marianne; and eventually uncovers Sterne's dastardly scheme--which includes impersonation, kidnapping, cornering the Syntax market, and elevating its author to Shakespearean status and First Folio prices. First-novelist Petracca, who teaches English at the Univ. of Calif., clearly dotes on academic foibles and grad-school chutzpah/ennui; the wisecracking Harmon is also engaging, even if he (and the book) don't seem to have much point.