Comic Novel about College Folks Dealing with Life, Love

Article excerpt


Novels set in the groves of academe - a tip of the hat to Mary McCarthy - are not everyone's cup of tea. For readers who prefer the hard stuff, they are often too mild and polite, and, conversely, for those who like things mild and polite they are often filled with way too much hard stuff.

There's a big difference between David Lodge's "Small World" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons" by Tom Wolfe, and not all readers are equally fond of both campuses, which may be why so many novels about college and university life are written as comedies.

In "Truth and Consequences," Alison Lurie, author of "The War Between the Tates," "Real People" and nine other novels, manages to make us laugh (though not, as today's students would put it, LOL) while also creating characters who linger in our mind's eye beyond the last smile and the final page.

Perhaps her success in T&C has to do with the fact that her narrator is, of all things, an administrator. No priapic professor or suicidal student in this department, just a capable, no-nonsense director of an academic center, who prides herself on being a good person and (pay attention here, class) on telling the truth, which brings on any number of unintended consequences.

"On a hot midsummer morning, after over sixteen years of marriage, Jane Mackensie saw her husband from fifty feet away and did not recognize him." Oh, oh, there's conflict in the very first sentence. But that's nothing compared to all the other conflicts that are in store for Jane and Alan and the fascinating cast of academic characters Lurie brings onstage before the final curtain.

As testament to the author's skill, while all of the characters are recognizable, almost all of them manage to come across as more than just types.

What's made Alan Mackensie momentarily unrecognizable to his own wife is the result of his having a bad back. But this is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad back; this is a monster of a bad back.

"Some days were better, Alan Mackensie thought as he lay on the sofa. Some days were worse. All were bad. None were good. Always the pain was there. Alan imagined it as a lizard about ten inches long . . . inside his back, gripping his spine with its dry legs and claws, moving its jaws to bite and flicking its forked tongue."

When Alan was well, he and Jane had been on a relatively even keel: he was a highly-respected architectural historian and she the administrative secretary of the Humanities Council, but the toll taken on his normal good humor by his debilitating problem eventually tips the balance, and the man who had once been Jane's prince, and later her king, has become "a kind of shabby, whining beggar."

That's the truth Jane has to face; the consequences will be the result of how well they both deal with it. …