Picks and Pans Review: Moo

updated 04/24/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/24/1995 01:00AM

by Jane Smiley

Who'd have imagined that the author of the heartbreaking The Age of Grief and the grandiose, sometimes heartbreaking Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres was capable of such a fast, hilarious and, come to think of it, heartbreaking, novel? The title refers to a fictional midwestern university with a strong program in agrarian sciences, a severe budgetary crisis and a vice president who unfailingly refers to the students as "our customers."

Juggling myriad story lines, Smiley chronicles the life and career of, among others, the head of the horticulture department, Chairman X, whose distress over the fall of communism is matched by his hatred for Lionel Gift, preening professor of economics. Tim Monahan, a novelist and associate professor of creative writing, furnishes Smiley with ample opportunity to take deadly aim at writers' conferences and the New York literary establishment.

Moo U is a place of gently sloping terrain, well-tended flower beds and many secrets. A local farmer has quietly invented a machine designed to revolutionize agriculture, a professor obsessed with pigs is secretly conducting an experiment on a hog named Earl Butz, and a freshman from Iowa is desperate to hide the fact that she was last year's Warren County Pork Queen.

Not for a minute does Moo lose its perfect satiric pitch or its pacing. Not for a minute does it challenge Henry Kissinger's observation that university politics are especially vicious because there's so little at stake. Don't skip a page, don't skip a paragraph. It's going to be on the final. (Knopf, $24)

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