The Handmaid of Desire by John L'Heureux

Soho Press, Inc. 1996 264 pp. 23.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


As Suzie Sweezie, a rotund undergraduate and a post-Christian feminist lesbian, observed from her aerie deep in the bushes outside the apartment of her unfaithful professor/lover: "They were immoral, teachers, the whole pack of them." The morality of professors and the lives they lead stalks the background of John L'Heureux's fifteenth novel, The Handmaid of Desire, another farcical romp through the bedrooms and dinner parties of the overeducated and oversexed whose salaries we pay with our children's tuition. If the plot of this L'Heureux soufflé were any lighter it would rise from the bookshelf, yet he manages to supply a few good laughs without causing us to knit our brow over the state of American higher education.

The action takes place in the English department at an unnamed university in northern California, where "the university symbol looked surprisingly like a dollar sign." The department is split into two factions, the Turks and the Fools. The Turks are devoted to whatever Literary Theory is currently fashionable. They write books with titles such as Metaphilosophy and Dissonance and The Hypothetical Unconscious.

The Fools, on the other hand, "thought fashion should be left for the clothing industry and that the concern of an English Department should be something more enduring and dependable-like literature, for instance, like books." The Turks, of course, don't take the Fools foolish ideas seriously, but mockingly await these fifty-somethings' retirement, or death.

Into this mix strides Olga Kominska, feminist/theorist/novelist, whose bold and disturbing intellectual position hints that not every word uttered by French philosopher Michel Foucault should be taken as the Revealed Truth. Olga sees the department as her own novel-in-progress, and in suitably post-modern fashion, creates the conflicts among the characters in order to transcribe the results. The consequences of her meddling are the novel we are reading. Except that she is also a character.

Let's move on.

Professor Zachary Kurtz has a plan. He wants to change the name of the English Department to The Department of Theory and Discourse, and appoint as Chair the hysterical, but controllable, Robbie Richter. Professor Richter is, unfortunately, confined to a hospital bed owing to his mental difficulties, which may not be difficulties at all, but merely how professors endowed with his brilliance behave.

"The doctor thought for a minute. Perhaps, as the patient's wife claimed, this was his normal behavior. Professor Richter was, by all report, a prodigious scholar and a unique personality. Perhaps his metabolism-perhaps even his brain-required him to behave in this way, jabbering incessantly, making cryptic references to his first book and to his latest book and to his first student's book on his book. Perhaps this is what scholars did these days. But what was he talking about? And why? And how could his nervous system withstand the ravages of such constant activity?"

The stakes here are far too small for Kurtz not to have enemies, among them Gil Ruden, who may have fathered the baby Kurtz blithely thinks is his own. And the hefty post-modern novelist Tortorisi, whose turgid, storyless novel is described by Olga: "This isn't fiction," she said. "It's self abuse under the guise of love."

Throw in lesbians; chicanas; the Black Dean and the Yellow Dean; the President whose dog, Hamlet, cannot decide where to do his duty; Peter Peeks, the studly undergraduate who services everyone without regard to their sexual orientation; the fabulously wealthy, dwarfish physicist, who wants to fund his girlfriend's television show so he can sing country and western songs on the air; and more alcohol consumption than in Rio during Carnival, and you've got some idea of the complications juggled in The Handmaid of Desire.

Olga, making notes for her novel, observes while the faculty seemed to be obsessed with sex, in fact they are absorbed by something different. "At issue would be power. Power . . . and the folly of answered prayers." In The Handmaid's Desire, as in all farce, prayers are answered, but seldom as the prayerful would have wished.

L'Heureux, a former Jesuit and editor of the Atlantic Monthly, has kept the tone of the book exceedingly light, in contrast to the maladroit infusion of religious themes in the recent work of satirists such as David Lodge and James Wilcox. However, the book is so airy it comes across more as a beach book for pointy-heads than a satire on the moral follies of academia. Aimed at wooden types rather than characters, the stab of L'Heureux's satirical pen fails to draw blood. Still, like last year's Wonder Boys by Michael Chabron, The Handmaid of Desire provides a diverting few hours with people whose response to their preposterous good fortune is to screw it up at the first available opportunity.