Since the publication of his first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, and through works such as Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Ishmael Reed has forged a reputation as "the brightest contributor to American satire since Mark Twain" (The Nation). In his boisterous and irreverent new novel, Japanese by Spring, Reed turns the full force of his satiric wit on the American university. Benjamin "Chappie" Puttbutt, a black junior professor at overwhelmingly white Jack London College, lusts after tenure and its glorious perks, which include a house in the Oakland Hills. Puttbutt spends most of his time trying to divine the ideological climate at the school and obligingly adapting his beliefs to it. He's a dismal failure, though, and is due to be replaced by a snappy radical feminist poet from back East (who collects causes like alley cats, and whose demands include a police escort and a chauffeured limousine). But then Puttbutt's serene yet mysterious tutor, Dr. Yamato, who promises to teach him Japanese by spring, suddenly becomes the school's new president when the Japanese buy Jack London College. Puttbutt finds himself the boss of his once supercilious department and, drunk with power, sets out to stir things up and settle old scores. More twists of fate await him, and before long he is unwit tingly embroiled in a plot to assassinate the Japanese emperor. Racial strife, Japanophobia and political correctness get a radically comic treatment in this satiric romp through academic life, making Japanese by Spring one of Reed's most topical and wittiest novels yet.
By turns strident and wittily incisive, Reed's satire of academia takes on Eurocentrism, Japan-bashing, racism, black conservatives and antiporn feminists, among other targets. Benjamin (``Chappie'') Puttbutt, a neoconservative black professor at a predominantly white college in nearby Oakland, Calif., opposes affirmative action and blames blacks for creating their own problems. Denied tenure, he fumes until his Japanese-language tutor, Dr. Yamato, becomes owner of the college and makes Puttbutt his right-hand man. Erstwhile ``houseboy'' Puttbutt takes sweet revenge on deconstructionists, feminists, traditionalists, neo-Nazis and other campus factions, but he is chagrined when chauvinistic Dr. Yamato imposes IQ tests devised in Japan, denounces whites as lazy coolies, orders campus security guards to beat up student dissidents and expels all American-born Chinese and Japanese students. Bizarre plot twists include Puttbutt's torrid romance with a murderous white professor's Japanese wife and the ouster of Dr. Yamato, who may have the backing of top-level U.S. government officials scheming to make him Japan's ruler. Gleefully portraying academia as the scene of vicious turf wars, Reed himself makes a cameo appearance here, tweaking Puttbutt and airing his views on the Los Angeles riots, arts censorship and the Persian Gulf war. (Feb.)