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A Yankee Poet Visits a Foreign Land--Mississippi

Times Book Critic

Pearl’s Progress by James Kaplan (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95 , 304 pages)

A foreigner arrives to teach at an American college. The ensuing chain of mutual misapprehensions provides a wryly comic view of two competing kinds of silliness: The myopic, Magoo-like foreigner’s, and the stuffy academic’s.

It is a well-populated genre that James Kaplan has enlisted in with his first novel, “Pearl’s Progress.” Nabokov sent Pnin to a place much resembling Cornell, Martin Walser sent a German professor to what might have been Stanford, David Lodge dispatched an Englishman to some all-purpose American establishment and Bernard Malamud sent a New Yorker--subspecies of foreigner--to a college in the Pacific Northwest.

Kaplan takes another New Yorker and transfers him to Pickett State University in Southern Mississippi. Pearl is a very young poet who doesn’t write much; he has one thin volume--"Oedipus at Secaucus"--to his credit, and one poem published in the New Yorker.

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Nevertheless, with a vacancy in the English department, Pickett wants him. And a day or two before term starts, Pearl finds himself driving his ancient, overloaded and overheating Volvo through an exotic countryside of red clay and scrub-pine and onto the steamy campus.

A Yankee in the South

If the New Yorker is hard, spiky-shelled and, once through the shell, capable of a kind of punishing intimacy, Pearl finds his Mississippians just the opposite. First encounters brim with delight and instant offers of endless hospitality. A silence follows; nobody is at home.

Pearl’s students move efficiently through his high thoughts about literature, their eyes are firmly on grades and future jobs. They look nice, he thinks, but they also look like cookies. His colleagues are a procession of affability, and no real company whatsoever.

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Pearl, who is susceptible, falls desperately in love with the dark, slim Francesca; one of the few non-cookie-lookers. She receives his attentions with an offhand friendliness, and even a moment or two of tenderness. Her parents have him to dinner.

But none of them really seem to see him. Francesca, in fact, is in love with someone else and goes off with him. Pearl takes up with Jewel, a redhaired neighbor at his swimming pool condo. Before long, he is receiving threatening postcards. Not long after that, Jewel’s former lover, member of an old local family, and loony enough to belong in a Faulkner novel, takes a shotgun to his apartment.

The Invisible Man

There is some further melodrama with Jewel and the former lover; but soon, Pearl is back with his cookie students and amiably indecipherable colleagues, and feeling as invisible as ever.

At term’s end, he leaves, neither sadder nor wiser nor much more of anything. His car is still overloaded. Trying for one last look back, he finds, aptly enough, that his rear view mirror is obstructed by all the stuff he had brought from New York and is now taking back.

“Pearl’s Progress,” like many first novels, is more than a little derivative. Stranger in Academe, New Yorker in the hinterland, Northerner discovering the South; these all seem like variations on an assigned theme.

More seriously, there is a kind of low-energy tentativeness to much of it. A visit by a drunken, world-famous poet misfires as comedy, or is much of anything else. Francesca is as enigmatic to us as she is to Pearl, and entirely tenuous besides. We hardly sense her.

An ‘Accidental Tourist’

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The other professors are faintly drawn; Jewel is a stereotype of a good-hearted country girl who has been around. The gun-toting former lover, polite and loathsome, is a caricature of Patrician degeneracy.

Pearl himself lacks much flavor, yet after awhile, his persistent dislocation tends to win us over. Like Anne Tyler’s Macon Leary in “The Accidental Tourist,” his low spirits have a certain spiritedness of their own.

Some of the writing is very good; particularly in the book’s best scene, when Pearl gets lost in the countryside and has to struggle with the decidedly insufficient directions he is given when he stops to ask. By and large, though, I would rate “Pearl’s Progress” as an agreeable but tentative first effort.


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