College Lit. 101

Special to SunSpot

There are certain staples of college literature classes. Profound novels by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens and other titans of British and American literature, for example. Books that provide a perspective on class and racial struggles like Toni Morrison's "Sula" and Nadine Gordimer's "None to Accompany Me" perennially appear on these lists. Even books by popular best-selling authors like Stephen King and Ursula K. Le Guin are assigned in courses on horror and science fiction in literature.

But what about books that professors don't assign? The ones that provide a raw, uncensored look at college life. Or the ones that show us the "behind the scenes" inner workings of the higher education system. Here are some books that may not be on a course syllabus, but should be read for their ability to capture the true college experience.

"The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters"
By Chip Kidd
Originally published in 2001
Paperback: 288 pages

Just who are the cheese monkeys, and what is their story? You never actually find out, for sure, anyway, but the search for the answer is entertaining and educational. Written by a well-regarded book cover designer (Kidd has designed covers for Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, John Updike and Larry McMurtry, among others), "Cheese Monkeys" is clearly autobiographical. But even those who are blissfully ignorant in matters of art and bereft of visual sensibilities will chuckle at this story of the trials of one student's first year in college.

The protagonist is an art major at "State U," not because he likes art, but because he doesn't, and he assumes that "if any school would treat the subject with disdain, it would be one that is run by the government." His initiation is "Introduction to Drawing," where the elderly Dottie Spang poses decapitated birds, rotten fruit and a block of cheese for still life inspiration and invites Mr. Peppie, the building janitor, to model in his skivvies. Despite the insipid nature of the class, the protagonist is redeemed because it is where he befriends Himillsy Dodd, a precocious elfin firecracker who becomes his muse.

Second semester, the action shifts to "Introduction to Graphic Design," taught by Winter Sorbeck, Dottie Spang's polar opposite. The class, including the usually unflappable Himillsy, finds itself artistically challenged, not to mention left in the cold, humiliated and driven mad by Sorbeck's tirades and irrational critiques. But the protagonist, whom Sorbeck dubs "Happy," remains undaunted. Before our very eyes, he develops a silent awe for his demented professor, and we witness his self-discovery as an artist, a graphic designer and a man.

"High Spirits"
By Robertson Davies
Originally published in 1982
Paperback: 208 Pages

Reading this collection of lighthearted ghost stories is a little like taking a class on Victorian England. The language is rich and flowery, the characters are regal and the humor is irreverent. Davies originally conceived the stories when he was a professor at Massey College in Toronto: He told a new one each year at Gaudy Night, the annual Christmas party. "High Spirits" contains all 18 of the stories exactly as he told them from 1963 to 1981.

Davies's ghosts aren't rattle-the-chains types and they are in the business of ribbing, not spooking. Queen Victoria, King George V, even Satan, all make appearances in these quirky vignettes. Since Davies originally told the stories to academics, many poke fun at the elitist, ivory tower nature of higher learning. In "When Satan Goes Home for Christmas" Satan tells the narrator: "You think you are cleverer than I; it is a very common academic delusion." In "The Ghost who Vanished by Degrees" the ghost of a graduate student who fell short on his thesis returns to seek his Ph.D. But he's been dead for so long that he's had time to prepare theses in hundreds of subjects -- from English drama to astronomy and mathematics.

The fact that these stories take place in a Canadian graduate school, combined with the author's Victorianesque speech, can be somewhat off-putting to the modern American reader. But Davies excels at storytelling and each story is less than 10 pages long, making this a perfect book to keep on your nightstand or in your backpack when you are in the mood for a quick dose of literary humor.

"The Human Stain"
By Philip Roth
Originally published in 2000
Paperback: 361 pages

Coleman Silk didn't make friends as dean of faculty at Athena College. The place was luxuriating in complacency until Silk canned the dead wood, hired young, overachieving professors and generally ticked everyone off. Silk's downfall comes when he inquires about two students who have yet to show for his class: "Do they exist or are they spooks?"

The comment sparks a bogus racism charge that drives Silk into early retirement. Equally scandalous is the fact that Silk is having an affair with a troubled, illiterate woman more than half his age. But the novel is more than a story of one man's fall from grace. Through Silk's story, Roth comments on the ills of today's society. Racism, child molestation, even the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair are dissected.

This is not necessarily light reading. It's easy to stumble over Silk's verbose rants on everything from the false racism charge to the unexpected death of his wife to the excesses of political correctness. However, Roth, one of America's most prolific living writers, certainly merits the effort.

"Joe College"
By Tom Perrotta
Originally published in 2000
Paperback: 306 pages

Danny is blue-collar New Jersey. Yale is upper crust academia. This dichotomy, and the tension between the two worlds, provides the basis for some philosophical issues of class structure, ethics and culture. Supporting these profound issues is a realistic, heartfelt, humorous look at college life through the eyes of one student (by the author of "Election").

Often, Danny's loyalty to his modest background and his collegial political correctness play tug-of-war with one another. At one point, it irks him that Bruce Springsteen's music is played "for the enjoyment of people who were going to end up being the bosses of the people the Boss was singing about."

Danny has more in common with the blue-collar "townies" who work alongside him in the cafeteria than he does his fellow scholars. In fact, while his classmates are frolicking at the beach over spring break, Danny is earning extra bucks by driving his father's lunch truck, the Roach Coach.

Danny's struggles are made more profound by his internal conversations on everything from relationships to social injustice to liberal lifestyles. Perhaps the moral of the story is best summed up in this posit: "Was this what my parents scrimped and sacrificed for all those years? So their son could spend his Tuesday nights drinking beer, smoking dope, eating weird food and learning to see the assassin's side of the story?"

By Jane Smiley
Originally published in 1996
Hardcover: 411 pages

Everything I've ever wanted to know about the inner workings of a large, state-run university, I learned from Jane Smiley. This novel is a sweeping satire that obviously required extensive research, or in Smiley's case, many years working at such a university. There are sexual liaisons, both illicit and above-board; egomaniacal grant-seeking professors; glad-handing fund-raisers; and bewildered freshman trying to survive the semester and satisfy their own inexplicable urges.

The characters intersect over the case of Arlen Martin, a jug-eared billionaire who enlists economics professor Lionel Gift to help him pull off a moneymaking strip-mining of a Costa Rican rain forest. When word of their intentions gets out, there are several people on campus -- from the provost's powerful secretary to the left-wing horticulturist known only as "X" -- who aim to derail them.

The story is told with a certain detachment that makes the characters seem less human and more like the stereotypes they are meant to represent. The humanizing catalyst is a 600-pound pig, Earl Butz, the innocent victim of a misguided research project. Earl's suffering brings all of the other story lines to conclusions in which they reconcile, make peace, move on or just accept themselves as they are.

"Rules of Attraction"
By Brett Easton Ellison
Originally published in 1988
Paperback: 288 pages

When I was a student at a small liberal arts college in New England in the late 1980s, there was a rumor on campus that "Rules of Attraction" -- a novel set at a small liberal arts college in New England in the late 1980s -- was based on my very own college. I didn't realize that this myth was perpetuated at colleges throughout New England, for the simple reason that "Rules of Attraction" represented so accurately college life at that time.

The novel was the literary introduction to what the media would eventually call Generation X: Irresponsible young people with no plans for the future, only a thirst to satisfy their own selfish desires. A less naive version of "The Sterile Cuckoo," written almost 30 years earlier, it is a snapshot of college life: A succession of lustful relationships, breakups and dorm parties.

Lauren changes boyfriends as often as she changes majors. Sean is a hard-drinking romantic who pines for Lauren while he sleeps with everyone else. Paul is Lauren's bisexual, passionate ex. The story of this romantic triangle tells the story of an entire generation: At times with humor, often with compassion, and almost always with dead-on accuracy.

"The Secret History"
By Donna Tartt
Originally published in 1992
Paperback: 544 pages

When I discussed with a friend Donna's Tartt's first novel, his assessment was that he "loved it." When I asked him if he had trouble slogging through the heavy Greek references, his response was "I skipped those parts."

In that case, he might have read one third of the book. The novel is thick with "those parts." It is the story of students majoring in the classics -- the study of ancient language, literature and culture -- at a small New England college. The narrator, Richard Papen, plots his way into this elite group and quickly learns a secret: While they were trying to recreate an ancient Greek ritual known as Bacchanalia, they just happen to commit a murder. This shared crime eventually pits the students against each other, challenges their morality, and leads to even greater evil and deception.

Tartt wrote the novel in good company -- fellow Bennington College student Bret Easton Ellis read the manuscript while it was still in progress and introduced the author to a literary agent. At the time of its release, some critics considered the book pretentious and unsuspenseful, while others declared it a brilliant psychological case study. Either way, it is an interesting, well-written book that captures many of the stereotypes and insecurities of college students. When you read it, just be sure to do so with a dictionary on hand and enough patience to slog through "those parts."

"Sorority Sisters"
By Tajuana Butler
Originally published in 1998
Paperback: 228 pages

This is the story of five African-American college women who are pledging for a sorority. The girls come from diverse backgrounds, but the women are united in their desire to fulfill their academic ambitions and develop lasting friendships.

Through their lives, Butler covers many of the issues that young women encounter when they first go away to college: Sexual relationships, romance, insecurity. Cajen is seduced into a one-night stand by a more experienced upperclassman; Chancey is fiercely intelligent but insecure in her relationship with a popular football player; Malena is highly motivated, independent and determined to achieve her goals; Stephanie fears others will learn the secret she is keeping about her mother; Tiara was raised in poverty by her single mother and distrusts men.

Over the course of the novel, each woman matures, confronts her insecurities and utilizes her inner strengths. Together, they share the rites of passage of college and learn the true value of sisterhood.

"The Sterile Cuckoo"
By John Nichols
Originally published in 1965
Paperback: 222 pages

John Nichols is best known for "The Milagro Beanfield War," a funny tale of a class war in a small New Mexico town. "The Sterile Cuckoo," his first novel, published when he was just 23, often goes undeservedly unnoticed.

A short novel, it is a patchwork of unfurling emotions, somersaulting sentences and youthful jargon. The stars are Jerry Payne, a bug-collector turned fraternity partier and Pookie Adams, a zany, talkative girl who temporarily steals his heart. Jerry, like many teen-agers away from home for the first time, struggles to reinvent himself and decipher his vacillating emotions. Pookie appears strong of personality and conviction, but deep down is short on self-assurance and hope.

If you've gone away to college, no matter what decade it was, you will chuckle, smile or lament over Nichols' descriptions of familiar milestones. The first drinking binge: "A lot of toasting and shoulder slapping went on ... I fell in love with them and we hugged one another." The first hangover: "I woke up (miraculously in my own bed) wishing I were dead." The first love: "Guessing conservatively, I must have married Pookie at least a million times every week. Married her and driven off with crepe streamers smoking behind us and tin cans thundering as she combed the rice kernels from my hair." And ultimately, the first breakup: "One second I would love Pookie so much my intestines twinged, and the next second I would dislike her intensely and sincerely wish that she would take herself and her wisecracks and go far away."

"Wonder Boys"
By Michael Chabon
Originally published in 1995
Paperback: 368 pages

Grady Tripp is a 40-something English professor who gets high daily; exposes his students to drugs, alcohol and crime; and has impregnated his boss's wife. It's hard to feel sorry for Grady, but it's easy to be entertained by his high jinks.

The action takes place during Word Fest, an annual event sponsored by the English Department at Grady's college. Add an adventurous drag queen, a homosexual editor, an obsessive but talented student, a misplaced tuba, a dead dog and a jacket once worn by Marilyn Monroe and you've got an adventure that couldn't be anything but fiction.

Or could it? Amidst all of his adventure, Grady laments the fact that he hasn't been able to finish his much-awaited fourth novel, "Wonder Boys." He's been working on it for seven years, and at 2,000 pages, it's only half-written. His stilted quest to finish the novel mirrors his own personal quest for self-acceptance and meaning. Chabon's point seems to be that there is no line between fact and fiction, and we can't have one without the other.

It is a story that is at once outrageous and familiar, disheartening and distressing. Through it, Chabon showcases a style of writing that is colorfully descriptive, fluid and likely to influence many novelists.

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