Picks and Pans Review: Foolscap

updated 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Michael Malone

Prior to this, if you wanted to read a rollicking comedy with an academic setting, it meant turning to such British novelists as Malcolm Bradbury or David Lodge. But now a Yank—Malone, author of Handling Sin and Time's Witness—has given American campus politics a deft comic spin.

The hero of this novel, Theo Ryan, the son of minor but flamboyant showbiz parents, is a professor of Renaissance drama at a well-endowed North Carolina college with a faculty of squabbling eccentrics. Ryan also happens to be, at least in theory, the biographer of the raucous, profane Ford Rexford, universally acknowledged as America's greatest living playwright. As a subject, Rexford makes biography a very inexact science: "Over the years Theo had variously decided that Ford Rexford was forgetful to the point of senility, a perverse practical joker, or a creature with so porous a membrane between lad and fiction that he simply didn't know the difference between what had happened and what could or should have. He indiscriminately mixed characters in his plays with people from his past whom he'd turned into characters in his plays. He never told a story the same way twice."

Malone sets up all these colorful characters and begins ricocheting them oil each other. The pace and humor flag somewhat when Ryan travels to England to engage in a rather unlikely literary ruse. But even here, Ma-lone has some wonderful set pieces, as when he sends the professor bombing around the English countryside in a tiny car steered by an ancient Raleigh scholar whose reckless driving Ryan compares quite rightly to that of Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows.

The comedy current may slow, but simultaneously, the novel deepens as Malone begins to explore themes of friendship and romance. Before Foolscap is over, it even incorporates a ghost story. It's quite an entertainment. (Little, Brown, $19.95)

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