The Troves of Academe
Now, in 1998, the Clinton sex scandal weighs on everyone's mind, and Coleman has further attenuated his status in the town of Athena by beginning a sub rosa relationship with Faunia Farley, an illiterate 34-year-old Athena College cleaning woman victimized by one man or another since childhood. ("Everyone knows you're sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age," announces an anonymous note Coleman receives.)
As Roth artfully unfolds his story in slo-mo, we also learn that Coleman has been living a lie since early manhood. A light-skinned black high school valedictorian from East Orange, New Jersey, and the son of a nurse and an optician turned dining-car waiter, Coleman's been passing himself off as Jewish since lying about it on his application to join the Navy, eager to escape being a "We," determined to be "just on his own and free." By the time we meet Coleman, father of four children and widower since the recent death of his wife, Iris, he's a nineties academic disaster waiting to happen.
By contrast, Ted Swenson at first appears to have made all the right calls, sidestepping clichéd pitfalls of his trade. At 47, still haplessly trying to follow up on the promise of his two successful early novels, he's the tenured writer in residence at Euston College, a third-rank liberal arts school in Vermont with an "alarmingly tiny endowment." Swenson claims he loves his wife, Sherrie (the college nurse). He hopes to melt the late-teen ice that has formed between them and their daughter, Ruby, and to continue to avoid the most obvious temptation: sleeping with his students.
Sure, at the administration-mandated session on sexual harassment Swenson thinks, "What if someone rose to say what so many of them are thinking, that there's something erotic about the act of teaching, all that information streaming back and forth like some...bodily fluid." But "as hard as it might be for anyone, including himself, to believe, he's taught here for twenty years and never once slept with a student.... How hard it is to remember their names, which proves that they meant nothing, nothing worth risking his job for." In Swenson's own mind, "He's the saint of Euston!"
That's particularly prudent since at nearby State U. an art history professor has recently been suspended without pay for saying "Yum" when introducing "a classical Greek sculpture of a female nude." ("The students accused him of leering. He said he was expressing a gut response to art.")
Swenson's time to screw up, however, is now. Because "what really bothers him...is that he was too stupid or timid or scared to sleep with those students. What exactly was he proving? Illustrating some principle, making some moral point?"
Enter punky 19-year-old Angela Argo, a student who shows real writing talent and reawakens romance in Swenson--first for her gift, then for her, a "skinny, pale redhead with neon-orange and lime-green streaks in her hair and a delicate, sharp-featured face pierced in a half-dozen places." Slowly, deftly, Prose orchestrates Swenson's descent into the same humiliation that awaited Professor Rath in the classic Josef von Sternberg movie The Blue Angel (1930). Angela turns out to be a lying, manipulative opportunist, but Swenson, a liar himself, falls into all her traps.