“Pomp and Circumstance”
Author: William Cobb
Publisher: Livingston Press
Price: $23.95 (Hardcover); $14.95 (paper)
William Cobb, long-time writer-in-residence at Montevallo, now retired, has had a long and distinguished career as a fiction writer. Cobb has won the Fiction Book of the Year Award from the Alabama Library Association and the Harper Lee Award as Alabama's Distinguished Writer.
The author of nine previous volumes, Cobb can be serious or comic. His best book, perhaps, “A Walk Through Fire,” set in the Civil Rights Era, in a town much like his hometown of Demopolis, Alabama, is serious indeed.
But his novels “Harry Reunited” and “Coming of Age at the Y” showed his comic and sometimes bawdy side.
“Pomp and Circumstance” has almost nothing serious about it. It is, rather, a broad satirical view of academic life in a small college, in the 1970s, with bumbling, pompous administrators and a variety of professors, mostly English, and mostly second-rate, along with a student body not yet obsessed with their GPA's, their records of service at the local food bank, and letters of recommendation to the law schools of America.
The academic year always gives fiction a natural narrative arc, as we move from the freshness of autumn, through the holidays, to the climax of commencement.
The fictional Lakewood College lies in the Florida Panhandle, 40 miles from Tallahassee.
It is a school of no reputation or distinction, which is why they hire Miss Lily Putnam, who is working on her Ph.D. at Emory but has not written a word of her proposed dissertation on Toni Morrison.
Lily is a beauty, with blonde hair cropped short, long legs, and very short skirts, described as micro-minis. Very bright but tired of school, she is taking a break for a year or so.
As Lily goes through her school year, she is hit on by nearly everyone, male and female, colleagues and students, and accepts the offers she likes.
At Lakewood College the writer-in-residence is Brasfield Finch, author of two novels: "The Fox and the Pheasant" and "Coming of Age in South Beach." These novels were not great successes, either in their critical reception or their sales. Finch is a little cynical, but a serious writer. Also a serious drinker and womanizer, Finch is a flawed hero. Vigorously eccentric, he wears scuffed boots, blue jeans, wrinkled and stained khaki Dickie work shirts, sometimes with a leather vest: the "writer’s uniform.” He has a ZZ Top beard, to the waist, tied at the bottom with colored yarn.
In his surveys of Modern American Literature, Finch teaches mostly Faulkner and Hemingway, the occasional O'Connor story. "He thought poetry was tedious and annoying, so he omitted it all." Finch requires massive amounts of reading from his students, never reads their term papers and gives everyone an A.
The students at Lakewood, when not drinking beer, have taken up streaking--a harmless 70s prank. From time to time a young man or woman, fit and naked except for a ski mask, races through the cafeteria or across the picturesque quad.
Administrators are upset, or at least pretend to be.
Although the novel is sometimes uneven in tone, with dark moments, including a jarring rape scene, “Pomp and Circumstance” is mostly a romp.
Fiction set in law offices is usually dark, even sinister, and that set in hospitals, a matter of life and death. Advertising and real estate firms generate greed.
But fiction set in colleges, and especially English departments, is generally comic, not to say, ludicrous. The characters are petty, touchy and usually articulate. By conventional standards, the stakes are small, but these neurotics will fight to exhaustion over who gets to be assistant chairman.
(A digression: a relatively new literary genre, the academic satire can be said to have originated with " The Groves of Academe," 1952, by Mary McCarthy. She taught for a while at Sarah Lawrence and made fun of her colleagues there.
In 1954 Randall Jarrell, after a short stint teaching at Sarah Lawrence, wrote HIS satire, "Pictures from an Institution" in which he made fun of, among others, Mary McCarthy, depicting her as offensive and tactless. Sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose.
More recently in the U.S. we have had "Straight Man" by Richard Russo, 1997, and "Foolscap," 1991 by Michael Malone, both hilarious.
There are many others. The academic satire thrives lustily in America mainly because our colleges have fallen in love with teaching creative writing and MFA programs have metastasized to all parts of the country. Academia has invited the serpent—i.e. fiction writer—right into the house and they have taken advantage of the trove of material.
A novelist on campus, like a novelist anywhere, will, often, write about what he sees around him, and since there is often a tension on campus between the PhD's who see themselves as belonging there and the writing teachers who were, until very recently, treated as interlopers and second-class citizens, the fiction writers have enjoyed making fun of the staid and stolid professors.
In England, historically, there have been professors/scholars who wrote novels--like the Oxford dons J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and the Cambridge professor/novelist E.M. Forster—but they did not write about their colleagues, or at least, if they did, it was heavily veiled.
The best British academic satires in fact—except for "Lucky Jim" by Kingsley Amis—are those in which a Brit comes to America in such books as "Changing Places" and "Small World" by David Lodge. Then you get satire AND comedy of manners. End of digression. There is no extra charge.)
The gathering storm in this novel is the president's decision to invite America's "most beloved" writer, Lenora Hart, to Seniors Day. Hart, here described as a Florida novelist, is the author of only one novel, "To Lynch a Wild Duck," which Finch insists is a children's book, "utterly puerile, callow, and infantile but it had sold wildly, made her a millionaire, and got her the Pulitzer." Once, Finch had asked Hart to blurb a book by one of his students, and “she had simply sent his letter back with ‘Hell No!' scrawled across the top."
Readers will have no trouble figuring out what Cobb is up to here.
Hart will receive $25,000 for a few hours’ work and, ungraciously, she refuses to be interviewed, sign books or appear at any "exclusive" reception for VIPs. The poorly paid faculty are in an uproar over the $25,000.
We can see it coming, of course, but her visit is a delightful catastrophe with embarrassment for all.
Readers should know, “Pomp and Circumstance” is fairly ribald and provocative but in a time when most novels are pretty grim, it offers a lot of laughs.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.