Academia's Angst

Crown Publishers; 249 pp.; $12.95

TOM WOLFE once said that the experience of being a graduate student was so excruciatingly painful that he and his fellow sufferers were forever promising to write novels describing it. They were deterred, he recalled, by the realization that such novels would be so depressing that no one would read them and that the authors wouldn't be able to finish them anyway. Fortunately, though, Doubting Thomas by Robert Reeves '73 is a stylish exception to such a potential parade of academia's angst.

Actually, Reeves' novel is only in part about the endless trials and travesties of university life. Much of the action transpires on the seedier side of Boston--the Combat Zone and the weathered racetrack at Suffolk Downs. Weaving together these widely disparate worlds, as well as that of a cult center in the hills of New Hampshire, Reeves has created an exciting first novel which is both adventure tale and mystery.

His protagonist and narrator, Thomas Theron, is a roustabout ne'er-do-well nihilist who also happens to be an associate professor of American Literature at a college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, known as Wesley College. Soured by campus realities, and the realities of his own failed marriage, Theron has become a fugitive from anything serious.

He spends much of his time at the track and is always sarcastic, even in bed. When one woman remarks, after a mutual climax, "God, we should have done that a long time ago," Theron simply answers "Done what?" Finally challenged by his ex-wife to say something serious, his only response is "Gross National Product."

Theron's life veers sharply away from academic drudgery when he happens to stumble on a drunken bum in a bathroom stall at Suffolk Downs. The derelict tells him to bet on "Jesus Saves," and for the hell of it. Theron puts $250 on the filly at 127 to I odds-- and suddenly finds himself up $31,000, or "half again what [he] earned in a year." Wesley College, "according to its own smug formula, paid part in money and part in prestige."

The horse may have been a lucky tip but suddenly Theron's luck takes a turn for the worse. As it turns out, the bum in the bathroom was Jesus Saves's trainer--and has died of poisoning shortly after tipping off Theron. Soon the young professor is being tracked by mobsters and sleeping in his office (in a building described remarkably similarly to Warren House) to avoid hired killers.

Forced to unravel the web mobster, cultists, and horseracing in which he finds himself, Theron follows the trail to a bordello in New Hampshire and the dark offices of head Boston mobster Vincent Ciullo.

A masterfully-drawn character, Ciullo prefers discussing Ezra Pound, American fiction, and Theron's chances of winning tenure of the necessary task of forcefully obtaining the young academic' cooperation.

But gain Theron's cooperation he does, and the trail which Theron, accompanied by Ciullo's loyal henchman Gerald, winds through the bars and nightclubs of the Combat Zone allows for some extremely entertaining. If slightly contrived, scenes, Scandalously, the trial eventually points towards Stephan Kenan, a professor emeritus of English at Wesley.

Kenan is a drunken academic past his prime--his office is said to smell of urine and sex--who surpasses any picture of the worst fate of old tenured professors. Reeves's juicy portrayal of Kenan may feed many a Cantabridgian imagination, particularly the Harvard faculty gossip-minded.

Reeves has woven a good murder mystery, but Doublin Thomas is also extravagant and funny in a black comic way. When Theron, his nose brutally broken by his ex-wife's boyfriend, goes to bed with his ex-wife, Reeves's description both funny and morbid.

Each exertion, I soon discovered, each surge of blood through my veins, triggered a fresh torment to my nose. Every time I gave myself the pleasure, a thump of pain brought me back... I smiled painfully. "Feels great," My nose not a nose, but a raw pulsing nerve.

The convoluted plot, however, is strung together with more than a few loose ends. The cult whorehouse in New Hampshire may be an unnecessary toner of John Irving, but it does allow for amusing satire of back-to-nature religious cults. Theoron is bewildered by the Adamite cult-in which, unsurprisingly, everyone is named Adam-which professes to practice coitus reservatus (carefully distinguished from interruptus), but then discovers it to be a cover for a bordello and much more.

WHAT REALLY MAKES Doubting Thomas worthwhile, however, despite the wild and morbid humor and the absurd plot twists, is its skillful portrayal of the academic world. Reeves, himself a Harvard graduate student for many years, gets to the heart of the academic quandary and the dark depths of faculty polities with more than a little humor.

At one calm moment during his adventures, Theron finds himself at a coffee shop in the Back Bay at seven in the morning unprepared to lecture on Hawthorne to his 9 a.m. class.

While I sipped the coffee, I jotted down a quick outline for that morning's lecture... The outline came easily enough. When pressed for time, I always resorted to the People magazine formula for lecturing-lots of authorial anecdotes, heavy on the bitter pill of knowledge. After a few minutes. I slipped the notepad-back into my pocked and checked my watch. I still had time for the sports page.

And during his tense tenure interview with older members of the English Department, Theron is asked by a professor specializing in medieval literature, "How far back does one go, do you suppose, how many years back into the history of literature, to understand, to comprehend, 19th-century America?" With his sunglasses on, Theron answers innocently, "Eighteen hundred?"

In the end, Reeves catches nicely both the tenuous hand-t-mouth existence of the aspiring academic, and the absurd chance that governs life generally-both points worth pondering and laughing over as another exam period has ended its domination of Cambridge life.