Life is a muddle from which we're trying to awake. If you don't believe me, ask Nicholas Kraven. Kraven has managed to combine a series of sexual opportunities and academic advantages into a truly disastrous mixture that threatens to end his comfortable New York life as an aging Horny Professor. How unfair can life be?
Alan Isler's Kraven Images follows Nicholas' life during a few seasons in the middle seventies, when professors were apparently making speeches, students, and their neighbor's wives. Kraven, a Jewish emigree from Britain, spends his days watching himself teach-having mastered the ingratiating insincerity necessary to endear himself to eighteen-year-olds-and his evenings sleeping with the marvelous Stella. Stella, the married mid-forties, upstairs neighbor, gaily cuckolds her husband, but doesn't realize that Kraven is simultaneously pursuing the bounteous Nimuë, coed of the silken skin, whose greeting-card level poetry Kraven praises, hoping to harvest Nimuë's physical bounty.
Then there's the ever-annoying aging student whose scholarly idea Kraven dismisses, then steals, when he sees the chance to go to a conference.
Did we mention Diotima, the aging German scholar who has discovered a genuine aphrodisiac? Or Dolly Divine, stripper, and her two wondrously endowed sisters?
Isler's careful set up of these colorful characters allows him to produce a frightful set of complications by mid-book, when Kraven's life begins to crumble, then disintegrate, then collapse, only to be rescued at the end.
Just when it seems that Nimuë's evil boyfriend will engineer a false sexual harassment suit, when his theft of his student's idea will be revealed to all at a national academic conference, a happy accident propels Nicholas back to his homeland, England, and a reunion with some of his aging relatives. Who should he meet there, but Stella's cuckolded husband, with a stripper in tow? Complications ensue. All the while, however, Kraven is forced to confront his boyhood, and the serious childhood trauma from which he's been running all his life.
This send up of academics has its serious side, as Kraven confronts his past. But the novel as a whole is beset by two problems.
First, when Kraven gets to England, a series of truly preposterous coincidences leaves the reader sighing with incredulity. Even though the plot complications and genuine need for us to suspend our disbelief mark this novel as farce, not comedy, the impossibility of the conjunction of characters in England takes the edge off the humor.
Second, Kraven is a truly literate man, which means that sentence after sentence involves knowing references to Dryden, to Milton, or to Shakespeare. While I'm sure fellow academics can quietly pat themselves on the back as they recognize the buried allusions, it's unclear that this type of pleasure can be widely enjoyed. The same goes for the ongoing vocabulary gymnastics: Dolly's not a stripper, she's an ecdysiast. The scholar's life is not difficult, it's strewn with impedimenta. While these verbal contortions may well serve nicely as a counterpoint to the coarse vulgarity of Kraven's students, the reader may well wonder if the choice of diction was merely a literary device.
Kraven Images will no doubt be compared to the work of David Lodge, or perhaps Kingsley Amis' immortal Lucky Jim. Given the 1970s setting of this piece, however, Isler's closest literary relative is Peter de Vries, another muddle master from another era. And like de Vries, the action here doesn't seem as much historical, as dated.
Isler's first novel, The Prince of West End Avenue, was a widely praised and nominated for the National Books Critics Circle Award. Rumor has it Isler is nearing completion of his third novel. Let's dust ourselves off from this sophomore slump and await his new offering.