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Clever Satire, Inspired Nonsense

By Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor. / March 9, 1993

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.

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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."