Professors in Trouble

From The Wall Street Journal

Sex and Violence
By George Stade
Turtle Point Press, 470 pages, $17.50

George Stade likes jazz. In case you don’t know that already, Mr. Stade is going to make good and sure you know it by the time you have made your way through “Sex and Violence.” It is narrated in the first person by an author-substitute who is, like Mr. Stade, a professor of English at Columbia University.

Not too surprisingly, Mr. Stade’s alter ego, one Wynn O’Leary, is a very cool guy for a prof. He is not only smart, but street-smart.

None of this ivory-tower stuff for him. He is also big and tough, an ex-football player, and knows how to handle himself in a fight — something that not every Columbia faculty member can say. At the same time he is a sensitive guy, and he loves jazz. Or did I mention that already?

In fact, hardly a chapter or an incident goes by without a mention of what is playing on Wynn’s CD player. The ostensible reason for these digressions is that Sex and Violence is an epistolary novel, written as a series of letters to Wynn’s dead brother, Joel, a jazz musician who drugged himself to death. Joel, it is supposed, would want to know what Wynn is listening to.

But he hears about more than music. Someone is murdering the members of the English department in a particularly nasty way and leaving bad pastiches of classic English verse at the crime scenes. Wynn helps out his old football buddy, Hector Suarez, the Hispanic detective who is investigating the crimes for the police, by explaining the arcane allusions in these poems.

At the same time he is assuming new administrative duties in the English department as a calm hand upon the tiller among his frightened colleagues. He is also trying to deal with his complicated romantic life by taking in a much younger and unusually obliging “cousin” (actually his cousin’s niece-by-marriage), who solves for him the “little problem” of his impotence.

Very nice for him, but why should we be interested? I think it is because the novel aspires to be a Hemingwayesque updating of the ideal man of the old romances.

Wynn O’Leary bears a certain resemblance to the Hemingway hero — at least if you can imagine a Hemingway hero as a jazz-loving English professor — and is like him in being created for our admiration as the preux chevalier for our times.

Mr. Stade wants us to believe that his paragon of post-chivalry is Dizzy Gillespie, and he devotes a 20-page digression at the climax of the book to persuading us of this.

But it is a con. Wynn O’Leary doesn’t really want to be like Dizzy Gillespie, nor does George Stade. Both want to be like him in being “at once tenderhearted and tough-minded,” perhaps, and, also like him, to liberate the life force in themselves that, professor-like, they call Das Etwas.

But the term is a reminder that they want to do these things while remaining English professors — which is to say that they want to be cool and smart and talented and tough at the same time that they are observing themselves being these things and analyzing for their admirers their own coolness.

Not being an expert in the “cool,” I don’t know for sure, but I’d say it can’t be done.

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