The Road to the Tower

With the possible exception of Joyce Carol Oates, there is no busier or more prolific woman of letters in twenty-first-century America than Francine Prose. During the past decade or so she’s brought out a study of Anne Frank, a short life of Caravaggio, a guide to “reading like a writer,” a book about the female “muses” who inspired various male artists, a monograph on gluttony, and novels for both young adults (Touch) and grown-ups. These last include, most recently, A Changed Man, which focuses on a neo-Nazi skinhead, and Goldengrove, which traces the impact of a drowning death on the victim’s boyfriend and younger sister. Go back even further into the Prose bibliography and you’ll find fiction about a voodoo queen in old New Orleans, a creative writing teacher in thrall to one of his students, and an Italian butcher who—by the grace of God—won his wife in a card game.

That last novel, Household Saints, was made into a movie, but Blue Angel—the one about Professor Ted Swenson and his obsession with Angela Argo—remains Prose’s best-known work of fiction. Like her latest, the satirical and unsettling My New American Life, this “campus” novel is a troubling comedy, sharply witty but also surprisingly sympathetic to its protagonist’s all-too-human failings.

In Blue Angel, Ted Swenson teaches “Beginning Fiction” at Euston College in Vermont. The poor guy really does try hard to find positive things to say about his students’ various subliterate compositions, even preppy Courtney’s awful “First Kiss—Inner City Blues” and Danny’s tale of a frustrated teen having his way with a frozen chicken. After one particularly dismal effort called “Toilet Bowl,” the desperate Swenson actually manages to croak out “Thank you,” followed by “It’s a brave story. Really. Let’s hear what the rest of you think. Remember, let’s start off with what we like….”

For twenty years Swenson has been faithfully married to Sherrie, the beautiful school nurse, and they’ve been happy together. Nonetheless, just lately the blocked writer—it’s been ten years since his last book, the ominously titled Phoenix Time—has started to feel a little weary of his virtuous ways:

What really bothers him…is that he was too stupid or timid or scared to sleep with those students. What exactly was he proving? Illustrating some principle, making some moral point? The point is: he adores Sherrie, he always has. He would never hurt her. And now, as a special reward for having been such a good husband, such an all-around good guy, he’s got the chill satisfaction of having taken his high-minded self-denial almost all the way to the grave. Because now it’s all over. He’s too old. He’s way beyond all that.

Wrong. No man is beyond all that. It just takes the right other woman, though on the surface Angela Argo doesn’t seem Swenson’s type at all. A new student, she …

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