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Satire without the bite


MOO. By Jane Smiley. Alfred A. Knopf. 414 pages. $24.

AFTER shoehorning a vast critique of Western patriarchal society into a single Iowa farm with her "A Thousand Acres," you'd think Jane Smiley might take a bit of a breather. An intimate, toned-down, between-blockbusters, single-nighter of a book would have fit just perfectly in the Pulitzer Prize winner's canon now.

Well, perhaps "Moo" is Jane Smiley's version of getting down to the basics. Instead of tackling the inherent problems in our entire cultural ethos, she's only chosen a modest slice of it to dissect, namely the 1980s. Oh, and let's not forget the American system of education. And bureaucracy. And racism, politics, love . . .

She goes for the whole hog (literally as it turns out) with this brilliant, good-natured, sprawling satire set in a fictional Iowa state university known as Moo U for its concentration on agribusiness. Jane Smiley might let you down in the end by refusing to give certain members of her pigheaded cast of characters their due, but it's a heck of a ride along the way.

The central characters in "Moo" are the faculty and staff of the university itself, many of whom spend their time preoccupied with things far removed from their proper province of education. Like money, for instance: money for English professor Tim Monahan's imminent raise and promotion; money that provost Ivar Harstad will have to raise to make up for the governor's $7 million cuts in university funding; money to feed Earl Butz, the hog who is Dr. Bo Jones' clandestine experiment to test the limits of gluttony (yes, there is a metaphor operating here).

Then there's politics. The ultimate laissez-faire economist Dr. Lionel Gift, whose only faith lies with the shifting gales of the all-powerful market, lends his support to a secret project by jug-eared Texas billionaire Arlen Martin to mine gold from the world's last virgin rain forest. This draws him into conflict with Moo U.'s resident liberal, Chairman X, who's so ensnared in his left-wing ideology that he's never quite had the time to marry Beth, his companion of 20 years and the mother of his children.

None of these shenanigans escapes the watchful eye of Mrs. vTC Walker, the conniving secretary to the provost who everyone knows is really running the university.

Of course, the one thing missing from all of this is education, the reason the university exists. The author, who teaches at Iowa State University, in a not-so-subtle critique, uses the hog Earl Butz as a symbol for the educational system; he gleefully gobbles up whatever is handed to him by a naive undergraduate student too caught up in his own personal life to ask why.

The real joy of "Moo" is how Ms. Smiley plays her cast of dozens as a microcosm of the Reagan-Bush-era America. The budgets and balances of power that the author places in College Town, Iowa, could just as easily have been set in Washington or on Wall Street. You'd still have the chaotic push and pull of left and right, subordinate and superior, black and white -- as well as the various Earl Butzes who clog the arteries of American bureaucracies.

Unfortunately, Ms. Smiley chooses in the book's closing pages to contravene the nature of satire by -- read no further if you don't want the ending spoiled -- letting everyone off the hook. You've got to have the heart of an Ebenezer Scrooge to write a truly brilliant satire. Ms. Smiley tramps around like Santa Claus handing out presents.

But if you can forgive the author her good-heartedness, you'll find "Moo" a satisfying sendup of the first order.

Dave Edelman writes from Gaithersburg

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