The author of Publish and Perish returns with a Faustian tale of the horrors of academe
Nelson Humbolt is a visiting adjunct English lecturer at prestigious Midwest University, until he is unceremoniously fired one autumn morning. Minutes after the axe falls, his right index finger is severed in a freak accident. Doctors manage to reattach the finger, but when the bandages come off, Nelson realizes that he has acquired a strange power--he can force his will onto others with a touch of his finger. And so he obtains an extension on the lease of his university-owned townhouse and picks up two sections of freshman composition, saving his career from utter ruin. But soon these victories seem inconsequential, and Nelson's finger burns for even greater glory. Now the Midas of academia wonders if he can attain what every struggling assistant professor and visiting lecturer covets--tenure.
A pitch-perfect blend of satire and horror, The Lecturer's Tale paints a gruesomely clever portrait of life in academia.
Splicing a demonic strain into the usual elements of academic comedy, Hynes's novel, following his acclaimed Publish or Perish, reads like David Lodge rewritten by Mikhail Bulgakov. After Nelson Humboldt (the lecturer in question) is dismissed from his lowly position as a composition teacher at a Midwestern university, he suffers an accident that severs his right index finger. When the finger is surgically reattached, Nelson discovers he can magically control a person's behavior by touching them with his mysteriously burning digit. His first act is to get reappointed to his post by the woman who fired himDVictoria Victorinix. This is only the warmup. Someone is sending scurrilous anonymous letters to members of the department, and the department chairperson, Anthony Pescacane, has fingered the poet-in-residence, Timothy Coogan, as the man. Nelson "persuades" Coogan to resign, thus opening up a tenure-track position. This job, Nelson decides, should go to his office mate, Vita Deonne, a skittish woman working on "Dorian Gray's Lesbian Phallus." Nelson's new seat on the hiring committee puts him in a key spot to broker the ideological fracture in the department, which pits Morton Weissman's Arnoldian humanism against Pescacane's contingent of cultural theorists, who include a woman who shows porn films to her class and a bizarre Serb with a costume fetish. As Nelson, like some usurping Prospero, begins strategically to instill fear into his colleagues by changing their reality, he attracts the attention of Pescacane's departmental paramour, the luscious Mirando DeLa Tour. Nelson's support for Vita fades as he makes a self-interested pact with Victoria. He also, unforgivably, uses his finger to control his wife, Bridget. In Hynes's ferocious parable, partial power corrupts absolutely. Author tour.