Professor Romeo by Anne Bernays (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $18.95; 277 pages)
A tenured psychology professor at Harvard, Jake Barker is also the incumbent holder of the lechery chair, awarded to the faculty member who seduces the greatest number of women. Though Jake favors undergraduates, he's also enjoyed considerable success with his colleagues, one of whom he marries during a brief sabbatical from indiscriminate promiscuity, and another who puts her own career on hold in order to turn his jargon-clogged prose into a salable manuscript.
Some 17 years after his first matrimonial foray, he embarks upon a second, this one with the ravishing Chinese-American publicist in charge of his book. Before, during, and between these failed experiments in commitment, he disports himself with his students; his practiced eye sorting them out according to availability on the first day of class. To give him his due, he's never wrong about just who is possible, probable and a cinch. That, however, is the only due he'll get from me.
Though we're told how brilliant, charming and hard-working Barker is, his field of concentration is gender differences between male and female infants, not exactly the leading edge of research. There are inside jokes here--on psychology, on Harvard, and on the denizens of academe. As for Jake's celebrated magnetism, that's a matter of the advancing hand on the receptive knee during conferences, quickly followed by a leering invitation to drinks.
Sporadic Hard Work
Sandwiched between squash games and his amatory adventures, the hard work is only sporadic. What really turns those earnest young psych majors into Jell-O is nothing more than Barker's eerie eyes--"wickedly blue eyes that fixed themselves on a target, nailing it." He regards his female students as a job perk, like the use of the athletic facilities, discount concert tickets, or good seats for the Yale game.
An unfortunate and perhaps inadvertent accident seems to have happened to this idea between inception and publication. What must have begun as a corrosive and genuinely funny satire on a concupiscent professor and his passive victims became an unflattering group portrait of the women who coldly oblige a fatuous fool with sexual favors. Because Jake Barker himself is nothing more than a bundle of sexist notions packaged in tweed, it's the women themselves who seem at fault, an impression so counterrevolutionary that it couldn't possibly have been intended.
The nasty part is that neither love nor desire has much to do with Jake's conquests. With the exception of the women who marry him, and Anita Andrews, who rewrites his soggy book, the rest simply offer themselves in return for higher grades or letters of recommendation; several even commenting tactlessly on how little Jake appeals to them. What we have here, then, is the female Harvard student as courtesan, not a pretty picture or even a fair one.
We begin with Jake called up before a newly established board investigating sexual harassment, chaired by none other than Anita Andrews, Dean of Women's Affairs, a post placing her in the perfect position for revenge upon her erstwhile lover. Long before we can enter the hearing room, we flash back to the late 1960s, when Jake was still a graduate student; following his sexual career to the present, when he's fatter, balder, lazier and cruder in his
The Cambridge Casanova
Though this tale of the Cambridge Casanova has its amusing moments, they're not provided by Jake but by the subsidiary characters, most of whom are wittier, smarter and kinder. Too shallow to serve as an example of a morally confused contemporary male, too competent to be entirely absurd, he's neither symbol, hero, nor antihero.
Just when we're beginning to hope he gets what's coming to him, he makes an ill-timed bid for our sympathy by introducing his sexually troubled teen-age son, a boy who has gone to extremes in his rejection of Dad as a role model. After this, the long-deferred scene at the harassment hearing is anti-climactic, with 40-ish women turning up to complain about incidents that took place decades earlier. "I have never in my life forced myself on a girl," Jake insists, delivering the unnerving message that undermines this otherwise diverting romp.