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Using street-wise, contemporary language, Smiley turns her gifted hand to a black satire about the inner workings of a big Midwestern college named Moo University, and as a university professor herself she knows exactly what fires to build under which kettles to produce an intoxicating, ironic brew. Primarily a wicked comedy, Moo nevertheless deals not unkindly with the foibles, aspirations, heartbreaks, and eccentricities of Moo's teachers, administrators, and "customers" (as the students are termed), shepherding them through their manic adventures with compassion as well as a mercilessly perceptive eye.
Imparting or receiving an education seems fairly low on the list of priorities at Moo, where the professors are engaged in a jealous, back-stabbing competition for tenure, lucrative outside consultancies, and research grants for weird projects, while the students simply want to pass exams without the fatigue of actually absorbing knowledge. All of Smiley's many characters are obsessed with one thing or another, and as the school-year gets underway a giddy mix of incompatible issues gives rise to startling alliances and enmities, improbable romances, and academic intrigue galore--all of which the author bares to mocking scrutiny in a string of witty chapters roving from one character to the next, and back again, until the whole preposterous tragicomedy deflates with the end of term.
Dr. Bo Jones is obsessed with studying the natural lifespan of hogs in the wild and will finally manage to disappear in Uzbekistan, after frittering away enormous sums of university money on his clandestine fattening experiment conducted on a hog named Earl Butz. Secreted in an abandoned building in the middle of an unauthorized garden maintained by the horticulture students, Earl is lavishly fed by a sophomore named Bob. Earl is Bob's best friend. The radical head of the horticulture department, who thinks of himself as Chairman X and has forgotten to marry the woman everyone (his children included) believes is his wife, nourishes a yen to murder the dean of extension, whose placid patience infuriates him. Meawhile he lobbies to fix the beginning and end of Moo semesters according to the average local frost dates.
Timothy Monahan instructs his creative writing class in the efficacy of eavesdropping as a tool for mastering dialogue, inspiring his student Gary to feats of lurking and a series of sick short stories based on his room-mate's up-and-down relationship with his girl-friend. The self-satisfied Dr. Lionel Gift, a highly-paid professor of economy, applies his visionary principles of consumer economics to everything from Third World development to an analysis of the benefits and disadvantages of marriage, deciding--all things quantifiable considered--to refrain.
The provost is shielded from his duties and responsibilities by his unassailable secretary, Mrs. Walker, who decrees and disposes, transfers personnel at her whim, and uses the computer network to shift funding as her own schemes and preferences demand. To her peril, Mrs. Walker interferes with a complicated plot to finance a gold mine likely to destroy a Costa Rican rain-forest, but a timely bit of blackmail saves her job and her influence unimpaired. And off-campus, a paranoid farmer named Loren Stroop, convinced that the "FBI and the CIA and the big ag companies" are out to get him, zealously guards in his barn a rattletrap machine of his own contrivance that, to everyone's eventual amazement, really might revolutionize American agriculture, just as Loren claims.
These are only a few of the strands Smiley deftly interweaves in her colourful depiction of life at Moo, where almost every value the contemporary American popular culture can either embrace or misinterpret is touched upon in her intricate plot's zany course of events.
© Wordreign, November 1999
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