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Japanese by Spring.

To some readers, Ishmael Reed's violent satires suggest that he is mad at almost everyone; his hit list seems endless. To the more temperate, he may, in Frost's phrase, have "had a lover's quarrel with the world." To still others, he seems to be like Melville's Ishmael, a philosophical schoolmaster on the high seas after a whale of sorts. More than likely he is, after more than twenty works - novels, plays, poetry, and essays - a writer with a mission: to cut through the crap, or if you'd rather, the social detritus, that clogs our national veins - racial tension (Rodney King), religious zealotry (Wacky Waco), male-female relations (Hill-Thomas on the hill), S & L (Bush and son), arms for hostages, whatever is fit to print or send through the tube.

In Japanese by Spring (the title comes from a short-course text used by our hero), Reed updates his ongoing quarrel with the world created by politicians and maintained by the denizens of Madison Avenue; he takes on, this time, the "groves of academe," especially the archaic silliness of tenure and all of its attendant quirkiness - teaching assistants, publish or perish departments, political infighting, assembly-line techniques. In his main character, "Chappie" Puttbutt, a schmoo-like black, untenured professor at Jack London University and member of a long line of military officers (father a general, mother in military intelligence), Reed has created an alter ego who represents everything he objects to in academic life. Puttbutt, author of Blacks, America's Misfortune (his dissertation subject, an obscure 1920s poet, Nathan Brown), studies Japanese so as to be ready for the inevitable "invasion" of the West Coast. But plot is almost never as important as Reed's satiric intent; his great skill is to create topical scenes and characters to represent his favorite subjects of ridicule. He is most successful when he devastates them by revealing their true characters: academic hustlers, feminists, anti-feminists, black supremacists, white supremacists, chiseling administrators, power-brokers who use students for their own ends - in short, all that's wrong with higher education that could go so much higher but probably never will. Reed's very personal brand of satire is humor as classical as Rabelais and Swift, and as meaningful.
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Author:Byrne, Jack
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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