- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

FINAL EXAM

By P. F. Kluge

Xoxox, 269 pages, paper, $14.95

REVIEWED BY DAVID SKINNER

P.F. Kluge writes wonderful rock & roll. His 1980 classic “Eddie and the Cruisers” (inexcusably out of print) and his 1997 “Biggest Elvis” both showed a superb feel for popular music’s stomp and pomp, as well as the dreams that fuel its greatness (and America’s as well). Not for nothing does Kluge’s newest, “Final Exam,” boast a blurb from Martin Scorsese, another great lover of rock music.

Yet, Mr. Kluge has been developing second career as an education critic. A writer-in-residence at Kenyon College, he’s already authored one book, “Alma Mater,” about the state of the liberal arts at this pricey private school in the cornfields of Ohio, showing it to be a welcome-enough place for intellectual talent, but a bit soft in the heart from grade inflation, trivial majors, and many other difficulties that have beset the modern college.

Recentlyhe ratcheted up the ire with the complaint that his once-austere school had become, after a bout of construction to upgrade dormitories and athletic facilities, more like a luxury resort, christening it Kamp Kenyon in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education. And if that wasn’t enough, Mr. Kluge is now publishing a mystery novel in which the intended murder victim is the college itself.

As more criticism of American education, “Final Exam” reads extremely well. Where, for example, conservative critics focus exclusively on the logical fallacies and bare partisanship of fashionable professors, Mr. Kluge studies the college as a human community, in which, if you know what’s going on, there’s an endless supply of irony to be savored.

A cynical poet on the English department staff, Mark May, shares narrating honors with two other characters, the school president and a member of campus security. He’s good for many a searing comment, intended and otherwise, on the quality of mind at Kenyon.

May becomes persona non grata when his cutting remarks (several of which he’s made in class or in the margins of student papers) find their way back to the administration. This causes him double discomfort as he’s hauled in for formal reprimand by the provost, who happens to be his wife.

Mark May, if you see the point, is a spousal hire. It says a lot about Mr. Kluge’s pessimism and optimism for liberal arts education that he makes one its two critics in this book someone who got their job not on merit, but to recruit his wife. Such a light touch with the ambiguities of merit and morality is especially welcome after all the roaring over Tom Wolfe’s season-in-college-hell “I am Charlotte Simmons.”

As mystery, “Final Exam” also succeeds, though not quite as well. The crimes — a feminist historian is killed and then more bodies turn up — do not prove entirely worthy of their setting or the great lengths to which Mr. Kluge has gone to faithfully render this micro society.

The novel’s three narrators work as representatives of the ruling class, the middle class, and the servant class, but their distribution of labor is not always used to maximize suspense. Nor does this device consistently further the cause of entertainment, unequal as these characters are in their storytelling.

May, as perhaps fitting for a writer, is the most amusing, while the college president, perhaps too appropriately, is a bit of a windbag, and the guy from security is the least well-executed, even as he begins with the most promise. Where the desire for accuracy in a narrator’s tone competes with the desire for writerly flourishes, Mr. Kluge usually (though not indefensibly) chooses flourish.

A veteran travel writer and literary novelist, he’s oddly indifferent to several conventions of the murder mystery genre. For instance, the genre thing to do would have been to place all his eggs in the basket of the guy from security, in the hopes of anchoring a series with this modest but bright local fellow who’s endowed, by virtue of his job, with a unique vantage point on a pretty interesting place, but Mr. Kluge does not seem all that interested in what success genre writing offers.

Mr. Kluge is supremely interested in place, and how a location lays claim to the imagination and the heart, both the writer’s and the reader’s, until they are inseparable and, for example, no one sees Florida without thinking of Carl Hiassen (Carl Hiassen included). And so the hero of “Final Exam,” a celebrated old-fashioned narrative historian who’s seen his time come and go at the college, has set up house just outside of town, even though he’s retired, as if there would be no point to leaving. Or any hope of leaving, really leaving, anyway. Yet, with the attacks on the college, the old man’s time comes again.

The greatest pleasure of “Final Exam,” however, is in its portraits of the professoriate, for which Mr. Kluge has used many of his own greatest lines as a teacher. (Briefly a student of his 10 years ago, I know this for a fact.) “You may be smarter than me,” Mark May tells his students, “but I’ve been smart longer.” More to the point, Mr. Kluge shows what’s at stake in education for the people doing the educating. As Mark May remembers two very different students to whom he’d grown close, both of them murder victims, one catches his soul in mid-air, as duty pulls one way, self-respect another, and a man with every reason to give up on the liberating promise of education finds his mission in life.

Mr. Kluge has constructed in “Final Exam” a mythology of the liberal arts education, seen in post-edenic retrospect, that is every bit as romantic as his evocation of 1950s rock & roll in “Eddie and the Cruisers.” It is too bad so few people share his wistfulness for the scattered promise of higher education — the lynch mob going after Harvard president Lawrence Summers could learn a thing or two — but with this book, their numbers should increase.

David Skinner is assistant managing editor of The Weekly Standard and editor of Doublethink magazine.

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