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An insider skewers academe

When academics pack for their summer vacations, they always leave room for books. In the season of sloth, the favorite reading tends to be an academic novel that satirizes the follies and pretentions of the very same people teachers have spent weeks staring at across a conference table.

Perhaps because it's a violation of protocol to cry out "Idiot!" in response to something a faculty member or administrator has just grandly proposed, most academics content themselves with literary skewering of their colleagues. The best of these novels, such as Richard Russo's "Straight Man," David Lodge's "Changing Places," or Jane Smiley's "Moo," are written by academics who are keenly familiar with the types that stalk the college halls -- the headstrong administrators, preening senior professors and wayward students.

Lawrence Douglas' "The Vices" meets most of the criteria for a good summer read in this genre, as it concerns the mysterious disappearance of Oliver Vice, a rising star in the philosophy department of a New England liberal arts college (not unlike Douglas' posting at Amherst College).

Vice has gone overboard while on a transatlantic cruise returning from Europe. Was it an accident in rough seas? Was he pushed by a stranger he encountered on board the luxurious Queen Mary 2? Or was it a suicide? The unnamed narrator, who is Vice's only real friend at the college, sets out to conduct his own informal investigation of Vice's demise when the Cunard Line and the police fail to resolve the mystery.

Making literal the phrase "literary sleuthing," the story combines the genres of academic and mystery novel. Why so many of these novels turn on the sudden demise of professors who some envy and others hate for their controversial opinions may be attributable to those interminable faculty meetings at which little more is at stake than posturing and reputation.

Still, "The Vices" maintains its interest through its reconstruction of the character and family history of Oliver Vice. He is "like his hero, Wittgenstein. Brilliant but incapable of some pretty basic stuff," especially choosing between the romantic partners in his life.

Modeled on Ludwig Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations," Oliver's research asks whether "our identity is stable over time and does it exist independent of our memories and perceptions." Naturally, the narrator's investigation of Oliver's enigmatic life and mysterious death evolves along similar lines.

The Vices themselves -- the pun is always operative in the novel -- are an eccentric collection of aristocratic Hungarian emigres who, like the "antique Zsolnay" porcelain spoon that shatters at Christmas dinner, turn out to be fake. The matriarch Francizka harbors latent anti-Semitic feelings while dominating her sons and manipulating the family fortune.

Twin brother to Oliver, the obese and nearly catatonic Bartholomew emulates first Churchill and later Hitler. Part and parcel of uncovering Oliver's identity is unraveling the source of the family's Swiss bank accounts, possibly from artwork looted from European Jews by the Nazis or possibly from forgeries of a Bulgarian artist, Jules Pascin, known as the "Prince of Montparnasse." That Pascin is driven to alcoholism and suicide by the obligation to live up to his own legend casts a deep shadow over Oliver's obsessions.

It's somewhat shopworn in an academic novel for the unnamed narrator of to be a novelist and professor of creative writing at the college. One might as well install a sauna in a Sarasota, Fla., home. Yet Douglas uses this overheated trope to some advantage, as it allows him to comment on the folly of writing the very sort of book he's writing. While the narrator recognizes that he'd "come to think of Oliver's as a family whose story had to be told," he also understands that "writing about intimates is not without risks."

Every work of fiction includes the legal disclaimer (and Douglas is a professor of law) that "any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental" not only because of the threat of libel suits but to protect the integrity of a story crafted out of partial truths.

The novelist recollects that his first book "was based on the family of a close childhood friend," who later "accused me of plagiarizing his life story." The narrator's response reads more like impassioned defense than satire: "I angrily accused him of failing to understand the nature of creative work. From a heap of raw data-stuff he'd told me and that I'd witnessed myself. . I had shaped and distilled a story with structure and form. If he thought writing consisted of simply transcribing the undigested mess of lived experience, I suggested that he give it a turn Over the years, I've come better to understand that writing about someone dear is never an innocent gesture, is always part homage, part predation."

Of course, every writer wants to make that case in his own defense, but he needs to write an academic novel about a novelist and his intimate friend in order to do so.

Joseph Conte is a member of the University at Buffalo English Department.


The Vices

By Lawrence Douglas

Other Press

343 pages; $15.95 (Paperback Original)