FANS of Ishmael Reed's pungent, fast-paced prose have understandably (if predictably) likened it to jazz. His writing has a spontaneous, improvisational feel: It's full of quick turns, surprises, and inventive digressions, mixing the arcane and the down-to-earth in the unforced style of a man who can think on his feet.
His new novel, "Japanese by Spring," offers a guided tour of the groves - more aptly, the jungles - of contemporary academe, seen through the eyes of one hapless black junior professor struggling to achieve tenure.
Benjamin "Chappie" Puttbutt III is the first in a long line of Putt butts stretching back to the American Revolution not to have followed the family tradition of volunteering for military service.
Benjamin's choice of a career in the humanities has been a severe disappointment to his father, who is a two-star Air Force general, and his mother, a dashing intelligence officer. They have told him time and time again that the United States military provides the best prospects for African-Americans in search of a genuinely integrated, equal-opportunity career.
Harry Truman, who ordered the military to integrate, is one of their heroes, along with the Puritan poet and polemicist John Milton (they like his emphasis on training and discipline). "That's not the only attitude they shared with Milton," we're informed, as the narrative slides deftly from clever satire into inspired nonsense: "With their continuous need for enemies, their motto could have been taken from Milton's panegyric for Cromwell: `New Foes Arise.' Their favorite blues singer was `Little Milton. ' Their favorite comedian was Milton Berle."
Their peace-loving son is finding the academic terrain quite as arduous, despite his seeming flair for self-advancement:
"When the Black Power thing was in, Puttbutt was into that. When the backlash on Black Power settled in, with its code words like reverse discrimination, he joined that. He'd been a feminist when they were in power. But now they were on the decline ... and so for now he was a neoconservative...."
As the story opens, this unabashed but appealingly unruthless opportunist is studying Japanese with a tutor who promises results "by spring," by which time the ever-enterprising Puttbutt hopes to speak the language well enough "to take advantage of new global realities."
Teaching at predominantly white Jack London College in Oakland, Calif. (named for the racist, socialist author of "The Call of the Wild"), however, is a lot like picking one's way through a minefield. The feminists want to eliminate his modest $30,000 a year position to beef up their budget for enticing a chic, overpaid radical feminist poet from back East. The African-American Studies department is divided by rivalries between Africans and African-Americans, and between proponents of Swahili and champio ns of Yoruba.
The entire campus is plagued by a bunch of neo-Nazi students who continually harass and torment Puttbutt, even though he continues to defend their right to free speech and excuse their racism as an understandable response to the excessive "demands of black students."
While the aging white radical dean and many of his black colleagues consider him a sellout, the conservative old guard of the English department - Miltonists and the like - also close ranks against him.
Puttbutt is worried that he soon may be reduced to the same impoverished income level "as the black writers he wrote his lectures about."
Things take an unexpected turn for the better when a mysterious consortium of Japanese interests takes over the college. Dr. Yamato, Puttbutt's humble-seeming Japanese tutor, is installed as college president. Puttbutt, his right-hand man, is now able to repay his old enemies.
Puttbutt even accomplishes some good from his new position, sending his old nemesis, the Miltonist Crabtree, off to study Yoruba. (Worn out by years of chewing over the same old subject, Crabtree is rejuvenated by learning something new!)
In due course, however, Putt butt discovers that this particular Japanese invasion is not a benign case of multicultural cross-fertilization, but rather is part of a plot to restore an ancient tradition of Japanese militarism. Before long, it's hard for anyone to know what to believe.
Confusing? Yes, and in more ways than one. Some of the confusion deliberately mimics the sheer lunacy to which academic politics can sink. ("Why is it that crazed serial murderers are usually white men?" demands a black professor. "Last I heard, Idi Amin wasn't a white man," replies his white colleague. "Oh, yeah." "Yeah." "Oh yeah." "Yeah.")
But a rather different kind of confusion ensues from the fact that Puttbutt is both the novel's hero and an object of its satire. Perhaps to alleviate this confusion, the author introduces a character called Ishmael Reed and keeps interrupting the story to let the reader know exactly where this gentleman stands on the many issues raised in the course of the book.
Summarized briefly, the targets of Reed's satire include out-and-out racists, xenophobes, Japan-bashers, and neoconservative defenders of Western Civilization courses, as well as tenured radicals, feminists, and other groups trying, as it were, to steal the thunder of the black civil rights movement by claiming to be equally, if not more, victimized. Nationalism in any form is identified as the chief foe, and cultural diversity the internationalist antidote to any one culture's attempt to dominate others .
All of which raises some questions: Is everyone who favors teaching Western Civilization merely, as this novel seems to suggest, a racist in disguise? Is "cultural diversity" a panacea for nationalism or a potential hothouse for new outgrowths of ethnic chauvinism?
And, while it's easy to make fun of well-heeled feminists claiming to be as victimized as blacks trapped by systemic discrimination and poverty, Reed's seeming inability to comprehend the pervasive oppression of women in almost every culture is a blind spot that undermines the force of an otherwise shrewd, funny, and instructive satire.