A Lively Satire Of Derring-Do at Moo U.
THERE'S a lot to like about Jane Smiley's latest novel, ''Moo,'' starting with a good-natured, clean-living hog named Earl Butz. Earl is the subject of a secret university experiment designed to discover just how large a hog might grow if allowed to keep on eating whatever it wants without paying the usual price of being turned into pork chops before its time.
Bob Carlson, the student assigned to the animal's daily maintenance, is too embarrassed to tell his parents that Earl is probably the closest he's come to making a friend on the Midwestern campus familiarly known as ''Moo U.'' And, indeed, most of the other characters we meet -- faculty, staff, administration, and students -- are a lot less endearing than this innocent, well-meaning, overfed beast.
Dr. Bo Jones, who runs the hog project, is ready to drop it all when the opportunity arises for a new research grant to study wild boars in Uzbekistan. His colleague, Dr. Dean Jellinek, is obsessed with cloning cows and inducing ''calf-free'' pregnancies in them.
Jellinek's ex-wife, Elaine, has become the consummate university grant-finder, traveling the country to liaise with corporate donors like folksy Texas billionaire Arlen Martin, who's about to form a mutually beneficial relationship with Moo U.'s best-known, highest-paid professor, Dr. Lionel Gift.
A self-appointed high priest of the marketplace, Gift teaches his economics students (or, as he prefers to call them, his ''customers'') that ruthless competition, endless consumption, and complete disregard for anything but profits are the sure-fire route to universal happiness. Practicing (albeit in secret) what he preaches, Gift is scheming with billionaire Martin to sink a gold mine under one of the hemisphere's few remaining cloud forests in Costa Rica.
Cloud forests and other endangered ecosystems -- are the passionate concern of Moo U.'s leading horticulturist, a die-hard 1960s radical who goes by the name Chairman X. Chairman X's 20-year common-law marriage to Lady X, which has resulted in a handful of little X's, is threatened, meanwhile, by his intense infatuation with the lovely new language instructor, Cecelia Sanchez, who hails from the imperiled region of Costa Rica.
Dr. Gift's schemes come to light, thanks to the clever detective work of the formidable middle-aged secretary who practically runs Moo U.
When she's not transferring funds from the athletic program to the library or making sure that frauds and incompetents get their just desserts, doughty Mrs. Walker (who also happens to be a discreet, monogamous lesbian) serves as assistant to provost Ivar Harstad, a nice but ineffectual man happily involved in a long-term relationship with Prof. Helen Levy, who's a pretty wise woman herself. Ivar's twin brother, Nils, is the university dean. Despite (nearly identical) appearances, the two have little in common. Longtime bachelor Nils is a born-again Christian, who suddenly believes that the Lord wants him to marry a young virgin, have six children, and move to Poland.
These are but a few of the many characters and story lines to be found in this novel, a lively satire of just about every aspect of post-liberal American culture as epitomized in the microcosm of one typical Midwestern university.
A versatile writer who has tackled a wide range of modes, from historical fiction (''The Greenlanders'') to contemporary realism (''A Thousand Acres''), Smiley sets this ninth novel in the academic year 1989-90. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe is what prompts Dr. Jones to abandon Earl for Uzbek hogs and inspires Nils Harstad with dreams of bringing capitalist know-how to Poland.
In an age of minimalism, it's heartening to see an author inventing so many characters and subplots. In this case, however, it becomes hard to keep track of them all because too many are insubstantial and thinly developed.
Some of Smiley's touches are quite inspired -- like that aptly named Dr. Gift, who does promise rewards for amoral behavior but whose beneficent-sounding moniker means ''poison'' in German. But a lot of the time, Smiley seems merely to be going through the motions, dutifully trying to flesh out people and themes that never really come to life. Writing a little less would have been a more effective way of displaying her considerable wit and skill as a satirist.