Mr. Happy

In a law professor's debut novel, Homo academicus meets pseudologia fantastica

Like Jack Gladney (founder of Hitler Studies) in DeLillo's White Noise and William Kohler (author of Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany) in William H. Gass's The Tunnel, Wellington is a scholar whose livelihood is linked to the 20th century's most notorious catastrophe. Douglas, in playing up Wellington's full personal and professional catastrophe, is performing a delicate balancing act: Of course the early-midlife crisis of a New England academic shouldn't be uttered in the same breath as the Holocaust . . . but how interesting that the German woman he carries on an extended (and unprecedented) flirtation with has a name that translates to slaughter heap.

Douglas: Don't call him Lucky Jim.
photo: Nancy Palmieri
Douglas: Don't call him Lucky Jim.

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    Up till now, reviewers seem to have missed a subtle but extremely important detail, tucked away in The Catastrophist's final, apparently buoyant pages, that masterfully merges micro and macro, the grimness and occasional glory of everyday life with history writ large. Rather than spoil the revelation, I'll simply urge the curious reader to pay close attention to when the story unfolds, and suggest that this perfectly placed clue is something that Nabokov—whose Pnin, that most sublime of academic novels, Douglas name-checks—would have savored.

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