Picks and Pans Review: Arts and Sciences

updated 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/18/1988 01:00AM

by Thomas Mallon

Mallon, who beguiled readers with A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries, continues to charm with his satiric coming-of-age first novel. His protagonist is Arthur Dunne, a 113-lb. (on a wet day) "goddamned grindy little wonk" who has just started graduate work in English literature at Harvard and has just started going to pieces. It doesn't much help matters that his particular corridor at Comus Hall in the fall of 1973 is populated with some peculiar characters. There's the Hedgehog, for example, a graduate student in mathematics, who when stuck on an equation paces the halls "flinging himself against the brick walls in order to belt a eureka from his brain." And then there's Willard Gill, the appropriately named ichthyology student, who is reputedly in his 23rd year of doctoral study. Arthur, known to his best friend, Shane, as "Keatslet" (while an undergraduate at Brown, Artie fell ineluctably in love with the oeuvre of John Keats), is having an equally bad time facing the grad school world: "Is this really what I want to do with my life?" This is the question that plagues his life; these are the times that try his soul. Matters are not helped when Artie falls in with—possibly in love with—Angela Downing, a brainy, beautiful Englishwoman who passes him a note during a tedious seminar: "Of the twelve men who this stuffy room fill/ Two I'd like to screw, three I'd like to kill." Not Keats, perhaps, but it inflames the sexually untutored Artie, who hopes he'll be "among the naked, not the dead." But the ensuing liaison creates more confusion for Artie, who sees Angela as a BMW, himself as a Schwinn: "Why did she want him?...Did she want to mother him? Torture him? Perhaps love him?" There are problems with the novel. At times Mallon interrupts it for some heavy-handed pedagogy, and minor characters slip clumsily in and out of the action. Angela is too chilly a character to excite much sympathy. But the annoyances are mitigated by observations like the one about Artie's undergraduate confrere Bill, "a druggie classmate who had planned to combine the old Sixties consciousness with the new careerism by becoming an anesthesiologist." (Ticknor & Fields, $16.95)

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