“A Good Life: Book Two of The Lily Trilogy”
Author: William Cobb
Publisher: Livingston Press
Price: $18.95 (Paper)
“Academic Satire from the Late Alabama Novelist William Cobb”
Alabama fiction writer William Cobb, who passed away this spring, spent the last years of his life on what was to be a three-part academic satire, set in the seventies in fictional Lakewood, a small liberal arts college in the Florida panhandle.
Cobb was writer-in-residence at Montevallo for many years. The similarities are crystal clear.
In the first volume, “Pomp and Circumstance,” we met Brasfield Finch, the Lakewood writer-in-residence, and Lily Putnam, a new instructor still working or, rather, not working on her dissertation on Toni Morrison.
Finch is a cynical older writer and a pretty steady drinker of scotch. He had a couple of critically successful novels but his career seems to be stalled. Lily is a very bright, extraordinarily beautiful young woman, a wearer of micro skirts, a budding feminist and assertively, energetically, bisexual. She sleeps with a shy, elderly lesbian professor and a rather stupid male undergraduate athlete.
The hi-jinks in the first novel feature students streaking naked and the visit to campus of a cantankerous old lady novelist, Lenora Hart, initials L. H., the author of the best-selling American novel of all time, the Pulitzer-winning “To Lynch a Wild Duck.” Reverse the initials and you have H. L. Get it?
The visit is a fiasco, as Finch had warned it would be.
Finch thinks “Wild Duck” is a young adult novel that somehow went viral. I must confess, satirizing Alabama’s most sacred literary cow does take some nerve.
Cobb uses the same device of the visiting celebrity in “A Good Life” but this time it is a male scholar, a Yeats expert.
Much is made of Yeats’ lines in one of the Crazy Jane poems: “Love has pitched his tent / in the place of excrement.” Although Yeats actually says mansion, not tent.
In fact, “A Good Life” is a very naughty novel, unsubtle, in places moving past the titillating / erotic and into what many readers will find offensive.
The visiting speaker is a scholar but also a drunk, chauvinist pig. At times, the exercise of her own liberation leads Lily into stupid and humiliating positions.
The bulk of this novel is satire of faculty foibles, which as everyone who has ever taught at or even attended college knows is shooting fish in a barrel. From “Lucky Jim” to “Straight Man,” authors have enjoyed success making fun of academics.
Professors, each of whom has a Ph.D. which is just as big as the other fellow’s Ph.D., are slow to be convinced they are mistaken and almost impossible to organize.
The president of Lakewood is a pompous, incompetent dwarfish fellow who pumps up his office chair to see his visitors. The dean, who plots and schemes to replace him, is wildly obese. Jealousy and Intrigue abound.
As has been often quoted and usually attributed to Henry Kissinger, “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”
As part of a plot to give the president a nervous breakdown, snakes are let loose in his office. This scene, done with more care and detail, should have been a tour de force, but is handled too summarily. I cannot help but wonder if Cobb might have made another pass through this manuscript if he had lived longer.
Amateur theatrics are often satirized in academic novels. Here, Lily stars as Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” The production is a mess but Lily is superb, a natural actress.
Volume three would have taken Lily and Brasfield to adventures in the New York theatre, but this, sadly, will never happen.
“A Good Life” will be welcomed by Cobb’s many fans. I suggest, though, that those just setting out to read this talented novelist begin with his best novel, “A Walk Through Fire” and his funniest, “Coming of Age at the Y.”
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.