Three Tales of
Tenure and Terror

James Hynes
(Picador, USA)
James Cook, the great navigator and explorer, was born in Yorkshire in 1728 and killed by natives of Hawaii in 1779. Two of these interconnected novellas involve a modern academic conference about Captain Cook's death. There are dazzling pomo papers such as "Cooking the Captain: the Colonialist as Yorkshire Pudding," but the conference nonetheless dissolves into a near riot over issues of political correctness and scholarly territory, made worse by academic rivalries.

The resulting acrimony disgraces its organizer, Gregory Eyck, an anthropologist at a fictional midwestern university. Hitherto, Professor Eyck had been a fair-haired boy in his field, author of epigrams like this: " 'The proper study of mankind is man' is the worst kind of enlightenment arrogance. We must adhere to a more rigorous, more honest standard: the proper study of anthropology is anthropologists."

Nursing his wounds over the conference fiasco, Eyck goes on sabbatical in Britain. There, he visits a megalithic site rather less well known than Stonehenge, and finds hints that the villagers are enacting some sort of ancient cult at the standing stones. This, of course, is exactly what a cultural anthropologist looking to restore his reputation cannot resist investigating further --- but it doesn't end well for the visiting American.

In another story, we have an ambitious but low-ranking English professor whose wife, a more successful English professor, teaches elsewhere during the week and commutes home on weekends. This gives hubby the weekdays to keep an affair going with a grad student and to mistreat his wife's cat. Until, that is, the cat seems to develop extraordinary powers---and it doesn't end well for the double-dealing professor.

Finally, we have professor Karswell, an over-the-hill European history specialist who learns how to cast runes on those, among his many enemies, whom he decides to destroy physically. His newest victim is a rather sympathetic young woman instructor, just coming up for tenure review, whose manuscript the older scholar plans to steal. However, during the course of the aforementioned Captain Cook conference, the young woman is able to turn the tables on Karswell and, suffice to say, it doesn't end well at all for this professor either.

§     §     §

The supernatural element in these farcical tales gives them a pleasingly old-fashioned quality, but the academic satire is as up-to-date as the latest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and it is razor sharp. Imagine an amalgam of John Collier and David Lodge.

--- Dr. Phage
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