SHE departed on a month-long promotional tour before her
colleagues at Iowa State University had an opportunity to read her
latest novel, but Jane Smiley is pretty sure they'll like it.
They'll need a self-deprecating sense of humor. Smiley's "Moo"
(Knopf, $24) is a laser-accurate satire of life at a Midwestern
land-grant university, complete with every stripe of internecine
jockeying for power, sexual and economic politics that such a life
For followers of Smiley's work, "Moo" is yet another shade of
the varied repertory of the Webster Groves-reared writer.
Her last novel, "A Thousand Acres," was a modern retelling of
Shakespeare's "King Lear" tale set in rural Zebulon County. It was
almost unilaterally praised by critics and was awarded the 1992
Pulitzer Prize for literature.
Before that, "The Greenlanders" was a dense, historical saga
about a 14th century Norse colony. Her early novellas explored
topics and characters equally diverse.
Critics have called "Moo" a "surprising departure." But for the
author herself, "Moo" is a natural adjunct to "A Thousand Acres."
Both use the Midwest as a landscape.
"I'd always wanted to write a tragedy and a comedy with the
same setting," Smiley says. "I see them as a pair. Maybe someday
they'll be sold in a slip-covered set."
It's something Smiley does very easily, the corners of her
mouth edging upward slowly and then suddenly completely as she lets
the listener in on a joke. It's a Cheshire cat smile.
Still, Smiley is more chameleon than cat, and literary watchers
have often marveled at her ability, even as a beginning novelist,
to embrace multiple forms and settings as her own.
"I've always liked to go intensively into something, to bury
myself in it, and then it's over," Smiley says. A pause.
"Considering that, I think my husband is amazed that we're still
married." The grin again.
Indeed, her intensive commitment to a writing project is
evident: Massive research efforts and much thought are obvious in
the gentle, subtle ways her stories build and involve the reader,
even in topics about which he initially may have little interest.
In writing "Moo," however, Smiley had to go little farther than
her office door to examine many aspects of the novel's universe.
Since 1992, Smiley has been a distinguished professor of
English at Iowa State, where she has taught creative writing and
literature for almost 15 years.
Academia provided fields just as fertile for fiction as farming
communities did for "A Thousand Acres."
Set in a relatively small Midwestern agricultural college
(never named, but affectionately referred to by students and
faculty as "Moo U."), the characters of "Moo" are instantly
recognizable to anyone who has spent more than five minutes in the
realm of academia. Everyone at Moo U. has a personal and
professional agenda: academic, sexual, social, economic, political
Smiley depicts many of the denizens of "Moo" with sophisticated
humor and imbues them with a general good-naturedness; she turns a
less approving stroke to the hypocrisy, egomania, self-delusion and
self-aggrandizement of others.
Consider Dr. Lionel Gift, an opportunistic intellectual
economist who persists in calling students "customers" and
willingly skews his research to line his pocketbook with grant
money and his wall with accolades.
Or Dr. Bo Jones, a researcher with a single-minded fascination
for hogs, harboring a secret experiment deep within the walls of an
unused horticulture lab. …