The book’s title, MOO, in bold black lettering on a stark white background, practically screamed, “Buy Me”. So, I bought the book from the specials table in a used bookstore in Menlo Park—the year was 2000 or thereabouts. That was my introduction to the novels of Jane Smiley. (Sadly, the bookstore no longer exists, having gone the way of so many independent bookstores in Silicon Valley).
I read Moo a few pages at a time over the next year, enjoying the novel immensely.
What held my interest for a year was the author’s peeping tom like observations of the inner workings of the faculty of Moo U, a fictional Iowa university. The author spills the beans on everyone from the university’s provost and professors to first-year language instructors; she snoops in their classrooms and their bedrooms, no place is safe from the author’s wit.
The townies show up in the novel. There is the strange story of a thirty-something former student named Marly who works on the food-line of the university cafeteria. She is observed dealing with challenges to her conservative Christian beliefs while she is engaged to marry a much older professor who wants her to bear 6 children for him.
Of course, students are portrayed also—she tells of the chaotic adjustments made by four incoming freshmen girls. The four dissimilar freshmen are Mary, Kerry, Sherri and Diane; they share a room in Dubuque House, which is described in the fictional Moo U catalog as:
The experimental dormitory, Dubuque House, offers freshman students new and enlightening responsibilities for living, studying, and socializing in an unusually well integrated and modern living situation.
In other words, Dubuque House is the author’s idea of a co-op dorm where the “modern living situation” includes doing daily chores in exchange for the lowest dorm rates on campus.
Mary is an inner city black from Chicago, who is the first in her family to go to college. Sherri is an over-weight “A” student from a large family; she is from a small town in Iowa and worries that she may run into her high school classmates. Diane, blond and sexy, has her sights set on a sorority ASAP.
Kerri, the fourth roommate has a secret that she hopes will remain hidden. Her secret, revealed to us in confidence by the author, is that Kerri was once the Warren County (West Des Moines) Pork Queen. Kerri would like to forget about that award, but her year as pork queen may be the key to her happiness at Moo U.
Pork is important in Iowa, and pork comes from pigs. Dr. Bo’s secret project is a Landrace boar named “Earl Butz” after the former Secretary of Agriculture and founding father of the concept that “Big is Better when it comes to farming”. Earl’s handler Bob, a sophomore, is dedicated to his job and he visits Earl several times a day to change straw and fill Earl’s food trough.
As the novel opens, Bob is entering a seemingly abandoned building called “Old Meats”. The building, reminiscent of the original Meat Pavilion at Iowa State, was once the crown jewel of the Moo U agriculture department, but had been unused and forgotten for many years before Dr. B secretly took up space for Earl Butz’s feeding station.
While the building faded from the consciousness of the university, its lawns were taken over by Chairman X and his horticulture students:
Its [Old Meat’s] southern approach, once a featureless slope of green lawn, was now an undulating perennial border whose two arms embraced a small formal garden defined by a carefully clipped and fragrant boxwood hedge. In front of that, an expense of annuals flowed down the hillside and spilled across flat ground in a tide of August reds, golds, and yellows.
The grounds, the building and its sole inhabitant, Earl Butz, will become the center of focus of a great battle between the conservative professors funded by grants from “big business” and liberal campus activists fighting a host of environmental issues from monoclonal agriculture to global development. Chairman X supports the activists against the dean of the agriculture department which leads to a confrontation in the battle of “Old Meats”.
But, setting aside professors and students for a moment, the real heart of this story is Mrs. Walker the provost’s secretary. She is the real power on campus because the provost signs anything Mrs. Walker puts on his desk. Her power is backed up by information—she talks to all the other campus secretaries often. The author reveals to us that Mrs. Walker is a lesbian. How interesting that turns out to be.
This is a rich and complicated novel with many characters. In my view the novel is the perfect “next novel” following Smiley’s Pulitzer winning The Thousand Acres. I just finished rereading the novel and found that the charm is still there.
Notice: “no animals or persons are killed” in this novel; suitable reading for open minded readers of all ages.
Day 44: Moo (Jane Smiley) (1995).