Moo by Jane Smiley, Knopf, 1994
Reviewed by Paul Lowinger
The hero of this novel is Earl Butz, a 700 pound cream white hog who lives secretly in Old Meats, an otherwise empty building at the center of the University called Moo where he is hidden from the cost-conscious administration. Earl whose job is eating five times a day is memorable among the stereotypical faculty, students and animals of a midwest cow college like the Iowa state agricultural school at Ames where Smiley teaches.
The best professor is Dr. Gift, an economist who calls the students "customers" and for whom faculty and knowledge are goods. Campus diversity includes Cecelia, a sexy Latina professor who has affairs with Chairman X, a Maoist professor of horticulture and Tim, a hunk who teaches writing; Mrs. Walker, a controlling administrative secretary who is lesbian; a Fundamentalist woman cafeteria worker, Marly ; an obsessed animal scientist and an African American freshman, Mary whose grades fall 14% after a white student calls her "nigger." The school is visited by Texas billionaire philanthropist Arlen Martin, a short man with jug ears whose companies go bankrupt and a paranoid farmer, Loren Stroop who plans to give his secret invention, an automatic planter-harvester to Moo although he worries about it being stolen by a big ag company.
Animals have the real emotions at Moo despite the human erotic tangles. The romantic feelings among Equine Manager Joy Pfister's horses and Earl Butz' reactions to his students caretaker are more believable then the love scenes of the faculty and students.
The campus is in disarray when a report by Dr. Gift recommending gold mining in a Costa Rican tropical rainforest is leaked to the New York Times by Mrs. Walker, the powerful secretary who is a closet Green. The leader of Moo's environmental movement, Marxist Horticultural Chairman X is felled at a mid-winter campus demonstration but the virgin cloud forest is saved. Outside Chairman X's hospital room Beth aka Lady X , his companion of 20 years whom everyone believes is his wife meets Cecelia, his mistress. The civility of their encounter dims the soap opera of words and campus manners. The X's finally marry but Chairman X will not be the horticulture chairman after the start of the next fiscal year because he attacked another faculty member during the riot .
Others retreat like the no longer Fundamentalist, Marly who hitchhikes to Bolinas, California to escape from the prospect of a marriage to Dean Harsted who heard God's plan for him to have six children, and move to Poland for a life of evangelism. The intended bridegroom survives Marly's defection and takes her father as his housemate.
Animal scientist Dean Jellinek's obsession about milk without calves and his bovine false pregnancy grant drives his companion Joy Pfisterer out of the house coatless in icy weather resulting in hypothermia. She is warmed by his naked body under the supervision of Helen Levy, a French and Italian teacher. The ambulance come and she survives and they both enter psychotherapy.
Smiley's humor is so civilized and elegant that I am impatient for the belly laughs of Kurt Vonnegut's "The Big Space Fuck" where the video image of a space probe of human sperm seeding Andromeda is accompanied by the fate of its television viewers, a retired couple who are eaten by giant lampreys in a degraded future environment.
Moo is the only sound that Loren Stroop can make afer his stroke which he knows was caused by the toxins put in his water by the CIA, the FBI and the big ag companies who want to supress or steal his invention. After his health insurance runs out, the rehab facility send him home where he dies still without speech other then the moo.He had been considered a harmless eccentric on his visits to the Dean although the device itself is confiscated by a mysterious Minnesota company.
The invention or deus ex machina promises salvation for the financially troubled university as Moo's leader's, the Gang of Five close ranks and enlist the help of the big as multinationals. The human finale is earnest and without the bathos of the animal climax in which Earl, ejected from Old Meats by the wrecker's clam bucked dies of a heart attack after a flight across the snowy campus. His last moments are graced by the gently caress of Keri, a beautiful frshman who had been Pork Queen of her county.
Moo's mild and ironic episodes do not display the the intensity of plot of Smiley's Pulitzer Prize novel, A Thousand Acres with its family incest mystery but her kinetic descriptions and metaphors remain. And despite the gravity of the two New York Times reviews of Moo, Earl Butz is not Moby Dick.