Cobb’s farcical novel explores the sexually dysfunctional dynamics of a college campus.
Lily Putnam just began writing her dissertation on Toni Morrison and lands a job as an instructor in an English department at Lakewood College, a small liberal arts college hidden in the outskirts of the Florida Panhandle. She’s a striking beauty and enjoys flaunting it. Lily quickly finds herself well-hunted erotic quarry—she begins a casual sexual relationship with Brasfield Finch, the department’s writer-in-residence, and something even more fleeting with the aggressive but impotent department chair, Rufus Doublet. She even sleeps with a 19-year-old sophomore jock, David Godby, who is as strikingly handsome as he is numbingly stupid. Meanwhile, Finch is incensed to learn that the college is spending a small fortune to bring Lenora Hart—a famous novelist—to campus to speak. He had a brief fling with her 15 years ago and detests the book that won her near universal adulation as well as wealth. He tries to block her visitation, but President Steagall is able to blackmail him into quiescence—Finch has a reputation on campus as an alcoholic who routinely shirks his professional duties. The plot swings uneasily between erotic frivolity and savage sexual assault—the campus is beleaguered by student streakers and then is embroiled in potential legal action when a freshman is gang-raped by the members of a popular men’s social club.
Cobb (Sweet Home: Stories of Alabama, 2013, etc.) was a writer-in-residence at Alabama’s University of Montevallo for over a decade and displays a keen grasp of the comic absurdity of campus politics. He also imaginatively conjures an eccentric cast, including a racist dean who falls in love with Lily almost upon first sight, and a local priest, Hamner Curbs, who is a closeted and shockingly reckless sexual predator. The plot, however, is plodding and aimless, a narratively peripatetic amble from one vaudevillian moment to the next. The story is built around Lily, who seems shallowly defined by her erotic power. The reader learns virtually nothing about her, her background, or why she chose literature as a profession. She rarely speaks about books or art or shows any abiding interest in either. In fact, no one in the English department seems all that keen to discuss literature, though there’s never a deficit of interest in prurient gossip. Also, the attempts at humor are more ribald than funny, and the descriptions of numerous sexual encounters in the work manage to be both peculiar and banal. For example, Finch lands himself in hot water after an indiscreet remark during a writing workshop, requesting a female student revise a story she wrote starring her cat. He jokes: “Re-write your story, Miss Carlton, and give us some conflict and resolution. Don’t just tell us, but show us. Then we, the readers, will love your pussy, too, so much we’ll want to kiss it.”
A meandering, comically flat sendup of higher education.