Burning Down the House

Associate Professor Nick Hoffman’s Department of English, American Studies, and Rhetoric (EAR) at the State University of Michigan is in even more disarray than usual. Several faculty members are openly vying for the position of Chair, the tenure committee is disintegrating just when Nick is about to be reviewed for tenure, and a rabid faction wants to create a new Whiteness Studies program. As Nick comments, “The lunacy here is atmospheric and institutional.”

The secretaries are in an uproar as well, especially over the Diversity Christmas Tree, which had been their response to prohibitions against having a Christmas tree in the office. Nick has declined to add such decorations as a Star of David or a pink triangle to represent his Jewish faith and his gay lifestyle. To add to the general indignation, after a few days on display the Diversity Christmas tree is stolen.

More seriously, someone is stalking the new professor of Canadian literature, Juno Dromgolle, and soon both she and Nick are victims of a variety of physical assaults. Juno, always flamboyant in her leopard-print costumes, seems justified in buying a handgun because, she says, “Teaching here is too dangerous.” She takes Nick shopping for a gun of his own, although Nick is reluctant to possess one, much less to use it, and he knows that his long-term lover Stefan would object. Stefan might object even more if he realized how much Nick is fantasizing about a heterosexual liaison with Juno, a development that startles Nick himself.

So what will happen next? Burning Down the House ends rather abruptly with not much sorted out, leaving the reader awaiting the next installment. But the novel is more than worth reading for itself, if only for one brilliant long scene of a departmental faculty meeting and for Lev Raphael’s usual witty and biting depiction of academe.