Nestled in the heart of the Midwest, amid cow pastures and waving fields of grain, lies Moo University, a distinguished institution devoted to the art and science of agriculture. Here, among an atmosphere rife with devious plots, mischievous intrigue, lusty liaisons, and academic one-upmanship, Chairman X of the Horticulture Department harbors a secret fantasy to kill the dean; Mrs. Walker, the provost's right hand and campus information queen, knows where all the bodies are buried; Timothy Nonahan, associate professor of English, advocates eavesdropping for his creative writing assignments; and Bob Carlson, a sophomore, feeds and maintains his only friend: a hog named earl Butz. In this wonderfully written and masterfully plotted novel, Jane Smiley offers us a wickedly funny comedy that is also a darkly poignant slice of life.
Effortlessly switching gears after the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, Smiley delivers a surprising tour de force, a satire of university life that leaves no aspect of contemporary academia unscathed. The setting is a large midwestern agricultural college known as Moo U., whose faculty and students Smiley depicts with sophisticated humor, turning a gimlet eye on the hypocrisy, egomania, prejudice and self-delusion that flourish on campus-and also reflect society at large. Everybody at Moo U. has an agenda: academic, sexual, social, economic, political and philosophical. Among the more egregious types that Smiley portrays are Dr. Lionel Gift, an intellectual whore who calls students ``customers'' and is willing to skew research to further his name and line his pocketbook; Dr. Bo Jones, who is conducting a secret experiment on an appealing boar named Earl Butz (Earl and the horses on campus are nicer than the humans by a mile); and a superlatively bossy secretary who is a lot smarter than the Ph.Ds she serves. A chapter titled ``Who's in Bed With Whom'' clears things up in that department-but only temporarily, since musical beds is a continuous game. A quartet of women roommates who all hide secrets from each other, an unscrupulous ``little Texan with jug ears'' who wants to give the college tainted money, and a stuffy dean who thinks that anything he desires is God's will are some of the large cast of characters that Smiley manipulates with remarkable ease-and though some portrayals verge on caricature, she never goes over the line. Details of midwest topography, weather and culture are rendered with unerring authenticity. The narrative sails along with unflagging vigor and cleverness, and even the ironic denouement has an inevitability that Smiley orchestrates with hilarious wit. 100,000 first printing; BOMC selection; Random House Audio; author tour. (Apr.)