The Midas touch
• Zany tale of a missing digit pokes fun at academia
Apparently none of us, outside the world of academia, appreciates the moral depths to which instructors will sink to attain tenure, if James Hynes' 'The Lecturer's Tale' is to be believed. But few readers of this wickedly satirical work will be in any doubt afterward.
In a story that's peopled by characters from a Monty Python sketch, the reader follows the fortunes Ñ or misfortunes Ñ of Nelson Humboldt, a visiting adjunct lecturer at the bucolic University of the Midwest.
Humboldt is clearly untalented and, as the story begins, due to be fired because of budget cutbacks. Then, on his way home to his disappointed wife, he loses his index finger in an accident. When it's reattached, he discovers that he has gained an amazing new power: Anyone he touches with it will do his bidding.
The trouble is, Humboldt's none too competent, and Humboldt on the path to fulfilling his ambitions is like a car that bounces off both guardrails on its way down the road.
But the characters Humboldt deals with make the journey worthwhile. He makes a pact with Anthony Pescecane, the literary goodfella who's the chairman of the English department Ñ and runs it like an old-time New York don Ñ to track down a poison-pen letter writer. If it's a staff member, it will create the vacancy Humboldt urgently needs.
Could it be Pescecane's sidekick, Professor Victorinix, an apparently ruthless lesbian executive? Or Penelope O, the high-strung Brit who gained the Hugh M. Hefner Chair in Sexuality Studies on the basis of her book featuring fantasies of sex with famous authors?
How about Marko Kraljevic, an aggressive Serbian war criminal with a knack for kung-fu? Or The Coogan, an alcoholic and romantic Celt, in love with language almost as much as whiskey? And what about slinky Miranda DeLaTour, who has the wiles to get anything she wants?
Even Humboldt's sole ally, office mate Vita Deonne, poses a problem. Why does the photo of her brother seem disturbingly familiar?
Meanwhile, the power of The Finger is seductive. Like Frodo in 'Lord of the Rings,' Humboldt uses it more and more. He even makes his wife fall in love with him.
Once Humboldt understands that he can change his future, he begins the hilarious social judo that sees his enemies undo themselves through their own idiosyncrasies.
Hynes gives his characters the kind of pretentious and bizarre quirks that could only come from an acute study of college life. Although the story slows periodically, as if Hynes needs to catch his breath, he kicks it into high gear for a thoroughly bizarre and appropriate finale.
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