A couple days ago I finished Mary McCarthy’s novel The Groves of Academe, and found it just the thing I needed back when I needed something fun to read. I must say that I’m fonder of her essays than I am of her fiction; her fiction is good but her essays are great. That said, I recommend this book, especially if you like academic satire. This book didn’t make me laugh out loud in quite the same way Richard Russo’s Straight Man did and it’s not as comprehensive a picture of college life as Jane Smiley’s Moo, but the writing is smarter than in either of those two novels, and more wicked. McCarthy is someone that, if I knew her when she was alive, I’d make sure I stayed on the good side of. She’s got one of the sharpest wits of any writer I know.
The story is about English professor Henry Mulcahy, who, we learn on the novel’s first page, has just been fired. He immediately jumps into action to get his job back, dragging his department into a controversy that soon engulfs the whole school. At issue here is Henry’s communist past (was he a member of the party earlier in his life and might he still be today? The novel was published in 1951 to give you some idea of why this is such a big deal) and his sick wife whose health might be irreparably harmed if she found out about the firing — a fact Henry claims the college President was fully aware of when he wrote the letter of dismissal. But most of all it is Henry’s personality that becomes the focus of the novel’s controversy.
For Henry truly is an awful human being. One of the chief pleasures of this book is the way McCarthy presents Henry to us; she recounts his thoughts with little editorializing, so that we get Henry’s self-justifications directly and can see the extent of his selfishness by watching his mind at work. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a character as self-absorbed as this one. Other faculty members make great sacrifices for him to try to save his job, and rather than being grateful, he gets angry because they did not make the sacrifices in precisely the way he wanted them to, and he pouts because by making great sacrifices in their own particular ways these people are shifting the attention away from him, where it should properly be. He is incapable of recognizing that he has ever done something wrong or that he has flaws and has responsibilities to people that he often fails to meet; everything he does it right, or at least it deserves justification and defense.
But he doesn’t come across solely as an awful human being; he also comes across as someone with great energy and great intelligence — admittedly, the sole use of which is to make life more comfortable for himself. But what makes the book so enjoyable is watching the characters respond to these positive things in Henry — the energy, the life, the color — and then watching them recover as they realize that he hasn’t told them the complete truth about his life. Henry is the riddle the book offers to the other characters and to readers: How come he has succeeded as much as he has in academia and what does it say about academia that he has done so? Is he worth defending? Should he stay at their school? Just when, if ever, is he telling the truth?
McCarthy’s portrait of college life is delicious, complete with academic in-fighting, competition, gossip, lying, and betrayal, and also intelligence, loyalty, great conversations, and, sometimes, the sincere desire to educate young people.