Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Book Review: Rare Days in Lost Valley

George Perkins’ new novel, Rare Days in Lost Valley is a pleasant farce where a group of quirky characters come together for a weekend academic conference in the fictional idyllic Midwestern college town of Lost Valley. It is part screwball romantic comedy where several potential couples weave their spells around each other (or frantically unweave them), part criminal heist novel concerning a plot to steal Bellwether University’s antique cigar store Indian, and part tender story of the love between a professor and his dog.

The book’s subtitle, The Bellwether University Book of Universal Truths, reminds me that it is very nearly a universal truth that were there a movie made of a book so rich with wry satire, it would almost certainly be populated mainly by British comic actors such as John Cleese and Michael Palin, or perhaps Judy Dench and Colin Firth. Yes, the book reminds me of classic British comedy, though it takes place on an American college campus with mostly American characters.

Langston Tenterfield, a young scholar without a permanent teaching position, has a plan. His plan involves winning back for his friend Broddy the affections of a young woman, Myrtle, whom Broddy met and lost on the Internet. In the process, Langston hopes also to win the affections of his own love interest, Gwendolyn, and gain significantly in his own professional standing. Lang begins his explanation of his plan to Broddy thus:

“Of course, I know you are not feeling your usual self right now,” he began. “I saw the change yesterday when you started with your Myrtle on the monitor and Myrtle on the printout and Myrtle suddenly not on the monitor and Myrtle not on the printout and I fully comprehended your mood. I also noticed how the absence of monitor cheer and printout happiness continued to crease your brow just now when you entered this emporium of caffeine euphoria. Nevertheless, I think you may be mistaken to carry your gloom so heavily.

“You will recall your old friend Tenterfield’s habit of speaking of the future as though it were the present. He confuses some people, he confesses, but it resides in his nature to perceive events in the full glory of mature realization well before the Nature who nurtures us all has found her way clear to enter rejoicing with the sheaves. In place of the wintry frostbite that ravages your cheeks now, I foresee a full blossoming of summer roses. Your feet now drag, but soon will bounce. Whereas the murmurs and whimpers that now cross your parched lips resemble nothing so much as the cries of a trampled sea slug, I see a better time coming, my brother. Soon you will drink deeply of the healing waters of love and raise your voice in glorious hallelujahs.”

“I doubt it,” said Broddy.

The plan it turns out, is not much of a plan, but in the fullness of time and plot it evolves into a full plot into which are woven the threads of other lives and other plots, including an attractive old girlfriend, a handsome and worldly Dean, a weather-obsessed University President, an ugly dog and his devoted caretaker: the monosyllabic head of the Communications and English Literature Department, a reptilian or possibly amphibian villain who reminds me of one of my old bosses, as well as the aforementioned plot to abscond with the University’s prized symbol, Old Huron. Into this mix is thrown the notorious intrigue of an academic conference at a University not very well-known for its abundant expression of mediocrity, and the mystery of a famous critic who never goes anywhere, but just might or might not turn up at Bellwether.

As the several couples, strange characters, schemes, and story lines begin to come together, events become ever crazier and more entertaining. Who knew academia could be this much fun?

Some readers may not have the background to fully appreciate some parts of the book that satirize academic fashions, yet it’s hard to deny the ridiculous charm of this:

The most important Laws of Absence Theory are Absence Creates Significance and Absence Equals Evidence. To deny the importance of absence is to privilege being over non-being. Thus, the absence of references to homosexuality in Jane Austen’s works provides evidence of her obsessional deletions, repressions, etc., thereby affirming Austen’s homosexual tendencies. Same for other interests. Plath’s fascination with Presidential politics and third-world population problems, for example. Hemingway’s unwritten needlepoint essays.

Perkins, a long time professor of American Literature and the co-editor with his wife Barbara of the popular textbook series The American Tradition in Literature, among other works, has an underlying message about the state of higher education in America. He delivers this message with wonderful good humor, delightful twists and turns of the many plot lines, and much fun along the way.

You can purchase Rare Days in Lost Valley, as well as his memoir Stones Stand, Waters Flow: A New England Story from XLibris, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. For those who are interested in reading more before purchasing, there is a longer excerpt on the XLibris web site.

Full disclosure: Among his many other accomplishments, George Perkins is my father. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

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