The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 6 August 2002


by Jane Smiley

Moo University is a large midwestern university in a vast flat plain in an unidentified state. Moo is Jane Smiley's vast portrait of university life, acutely observed, witty and perhaps a little bitter (she herself once taught at Iowa State). It might be construed that her story is that of Iowa State University, but I read many similarities to other university environments. It is a complex personal and political world she describes here, all the way up from young freshman girls, through work-study students, and up to the administrators and their assistants who really run the whole show. The plot, such as it is, centers around the university's financial woes, and the hopes and dreams of its constiuents. There is an arrogant economics professor with a utilitarian view of the world. There is his opposite, the horticulture chairman lamenting the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Eventually, their fates become entwined as corporate interests manipulate the collegial environment, and the environment of a cloud forest in Costa Rica. All through the book, there is the chorus, such as it is, the voice of Earl Butz, a 700-pound hog hidden in an abandoned slaughterhouse in the middle of campus. Things fall apart, but through the generosity and hope of one confused old man, things come together again for Moo U. The book is relatively light. It is witty but not hilarious, which is OK. There is a somber tone, as well. Smiley, a Pulitzer Prize winner, perhaps takes on too many stories at once. While each is engaging, they are each somewhat thin. A little unsatisfying in the end, kind of like a college education.

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