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The Lecturer's Tale
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The Lecturer's Tale

3.8 4
by James Hynes

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Nelson Humboldt is a visiting adjunct English lecturer at prestigious Midwest University, until he is unceremoniously fired one autumn morning. Minutes after the axe falls, his right index finger is severed in a freak accident. Doctors manage to reattach the finger, but when the bandages come off, Nelson realizes that he has acquired a strange power—he can


Nelson Humboldt is a visiting adjunct English lecturer at prestigious Midwest University, until he is unceremoniously fired one autumn morning. Minutes after the axe falls, his right index finger is severed in a freak accident. Doctors manage to reattach the finger, but when the bandages come off, Nelson realizes that he has acquired a strange power—he can force his will onto others with a touch of his finger. And so he obtains an extension on the lease of his university-owned townhouse and picks up two sections of freshman composition, saving his career from utter ruin. But soon these victories seem inconsequential, and Nelson's finger burns for even greater glory. Now the Midas of academia wonders if he can attain what every struggling assistant professor and visiting lecturer covets—tenure. The Lecturer's Tale is a pitch-perfect blend of satire and horror.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The most devasting satirical portrait of contemporary academic life I've ever read.” —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World

“[Hynes] writes so brilliantly, inventively, and lovingly about the sins of academe that the reader ends up, like Milton's Satan, even more eager to serve in Hell.” —Chronicle of Higher Education

“A full-blown academic farce. Hynes has hit on a brilliant ploy in weaving Gothic horror with contemporary lit crit.” —Tobin Harshaw, The New York Times Book Review

“Hynes bathes his ship of overeducated fools in such luscious detail (the trends! the allusions! the hairstyles!) that he vaults to the head of the crowded class of academic satirists.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Near perfection . . . The Lecturer's Tale is an arch academic horror story where no chain-rattling ghost could hold a candle to the terror that is a power-hungry English department chairman. It's is also a very funny, very dark satire that does more to deflate academic pretense than any earnest political lament ever could.” —The Hartford Courant

The Lecturer's Tale is rowdy and brilliant--pointedly literate and scathingly funny all at once.” —Texas Monthly

“A delight to read . . . It is the kind of book that all of us who spend hour upon hour trying to achieve consensus in ideological divided committees fantasize about writing someday (if only we had Hynes's talent).” —Eliza Nichols, Boston Review

“A daring comic novel . . . [that will] leave readers happy.” —Entertainment Weekly

“More than just a ribald tale of modern misbehavior among the learned class, The Lecturer's Tale sings a song of fervent love for the English language.” —The Austin Chronicle

“Ferocious . . . Splicing a demonic strain into the usual elements of academic comedy, Hynes's novel . . . reads like David Lodge rewritten by Mikhail Bulgakov.” —Publishers Weekly l(starred review)

“[A] wickedly funny academic horror novel.” —Polly Shulman, Newsday

“A wild, laugh-out-loud ride.” —Carrie Harrison, San Francisco Chronicle

“[Hynes] has a knack for exploding academic stereotypes into hyperbole so unreal that it's giddily true . . . An acidulously droll spoof.” —The Commercial Appeal

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Splicing a demonic strain into the usual elements of academic comedy, Hynes's novel, following his acclaimed Publish or Perish, reads like David Lodge rewritten by Mikhail Bulgakov. After Nelson Humboldt (the lecturer in question) is dismissed from his lowly position as a composition teacher at a Midwestern university, he suffers an accident that severs his right index finger. When the finger is surgically reattached, Nelson discovers he can magically control a person's behavior by touching them with his mysteriously burning digit. His first act is to get reappointed to his post by the woman who fired him--Victoria Victorinix. This is only the warmup. Someone is sending scurrilous anonymous letters to members of the department, and the department chairperson, Anthony Pescacane, has fingered the poet-in-residence, Timothy Coogan, as the man. Nelson "persuades" Coogan to resign, thus opening up a tenure-track position. This job, Nelson decides, should go to his office mate, Vita Deonne, a skittish woman working on "Dorian Gray's Lesbian Phallus." Nelson's new seat on the hiring committee puts him in a key spot to broker the ideological fracture in the department, which pits Morton Weissman's Arnoldian humanism against Pescacane's contingent of cultural theorists, who include a woman who shows porn films to her class and a bizarre Serb with a costume fetish. As Nelson, like some usurping Prospero, begins strategically to instill fear into his colleagues by changing their reality, he attracts the attention of Pescacane's departmental paramour, the luscious Mirando DeLa Tour. Nelson's support for Vita fades as he makes a self-interested pact with Victoria. He also, unforgivably, uses his finger to control his wife, Bridget. In Hynes's ferocious parable, partial power corrupts absolutely. Author tour. (Jan.) Forecast: As Jane Smiley's spoof of academia, Moo, and David Lodge's novels have shown, satires of academic manners can reflect the foibles of society at large. Hynes's witheringly literate dark comedy should be a campus hit this spring, and word of mouth potential could lead to mainstream sales. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Nelson Humboldt has a gift that results from his finger being severed moments after he loses his job as a lecturer at a prestigious Midwestern university. Whomever he touches with his reattached digit does as he commands. Initially, he gets his job reinstated and extends his stay in married-student housing, but it isn't long before his objectives become more grandiose, like tenure and department chair. In the process, Hynes (Publish and Perish) satirizes academics across the board, from feminist theorists to power-conscious status seekers to passed-over white males, so that the whole notion of higher education, where politics and fame outweigh teaching and research, becomes laughable. Beginning on Halloween and ending on Easter, the novel is taken over by a Shakespearean-style magic until a final hallucinatory climax that reinvents the university. Strong characterizations and an imaginative narrative make this highly recommended.--Joshua Cohen, Mid-Hudson Lib. Syst., Poughkeepsie, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Dr. Faustus toils thanklessly at an august midwestern university in Hynes's latest dispatch from the culture wars (academic division). Adding injury to insult, Nelson Humboldt loses a finger in a freak accident minutes after getting fired from his lowly position as an adjunct lecturer at Minnesota's University of the Midwest. When the finger's surgically reattached, it still hurts, despite the assurances he's been given about severed nerve endings. But the tradeoff for a little discomfort is great: Nelson can now compel other people to do his bidding whenever he touches them with the infernal digit. A lesser mortal would be looking for love, wealth, or fame, but Nelson, once he tests his power by getting his university-subsidized lease extended and landing a couple of composition courses, wants only one thing (and here Hynes's insight into the academic mentality is at its most piercing): control of Midwest's English department, a covey of narrow-minded sharks who congregate only to preen or exchange insults. Starting with an unholy alliance he makes with his chair, Anthony Pescecane (think Stanley Fish with a smidge of Frank Lentricchia), to unmask the author of a series of taunting anonymous letters, Nelson soon finds himself catapulted into the department's catbird seat, playing off postcolonial theorists, Celebrity Studies poseurs, and lesbian terrorists against each other in order to champion the tenure bid of his frumpy officemate, Vita Deonne, a woman with unsuspected depths. The resulting plot, which lurches from one wild tableau to the next, simply proves once more that hell is other people with tenure. But Hynes (Publish and Perish, 1997,etc.)bathes his ship ofovereducated fools in such luscious detail (the trends! the allusions! the hairstyles!) that he vaults to the head of the crowded class of academic satirists. As many belly laughs, despite all the fire and brimstone, as David Lodge—and you don't even have to know what a paternoster or O-levels are. Author tour

Product Details

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First Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.89(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Lecturer's Tale

By James Hynes


Copyright © 2001 James Hynes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-28771-9


All Hallow's Eve

Crossing the Quad on a Halloween Friday, as the clock in the library tower tolled thirteen under a windy, dramatic sky, Nelson Humboldt lost his right index finger in a freak accident. Someone called his name three times out of the midday press of students, and as he turned to answer, Nelson stumbled over a young woman stooping to the pavement behind him. Falling backward, he threw his hand out to catch himself, and his finger was severed by the whirring spokes of a passing bicycle.

Only minutes before, in the shadowy office of Victoria Victorinix, the English Department's undergraduate chair, Nelson had lost his job as a visiting adjunct lecturer. He had sat on the far side of Professor Victorinix's severely rectilinear desk, his hands tightly clutching his knees, while she told him with a cool courtesy that the department was forced by budget necessities to terminate his appointment at the end of the semester, only six weeks away.

"You have our gratitude, of course," she said, folding her slim hands in the icy blue light of her desk lamp, "for all your efforts on behalf of the department."

Professor Victorinix was a small, slender, thin-lipped woman with cropped, silvery hair and a bloodless manner barely masked by a disinterested politesse. Even during the day she kept the blinds of her office drawn, and today she sat in the shadows just beyond the direct glare of the lamp. The reflected glow off her desktop emphasized the sharpness of her cheekbones, the deep groove between her eyebrows, the smooth skullcap curve of her forehead. She regarded Nelson with a gaze that seemed to him aristocratic, ancient, bored.

"Under the circumstances," she said, "I realize that our gratitude may not mean much to you."

Nelson swallowed hard and tried not to cry. His own gaze, in order to avoid meeting hers, darted all over the office. His blurry glance took in pale gray walls, rigorously ordered books in steel and glass shelves, a muted etching in a silver frame of the Countess Bathory in her bath. Nelson appreciated that Professor Victorinix looked at him as she fired him, but couldn't she turn away, just for a moment?

"I, I'm sorry." Nelson cleared his throat. "Don't worry about me."

"I'd be happy to write a letter for your dossier." Victorinix began needlessly to adjust her pens and rearrange the papers on her desk. "We'll do what we can for you, Nelson."

Even more than the other senior members of the department, Victoria Victorinix was immune to the self-pity of wounded young men. After twenty-five years of ostracism, and worse, because of her sexual preference, she had outlasted the genteel bigotry of deans, chairmen, and senior colleagues to end up as a tenured full professor at a prestigious research university. Even more remarkably, she had survived three or four paradigm shifts in literary theory. All her books were still in print, from Rhythm and Metonomy in Coleridge's "Christabel" to Daughters of the Night: Clitoral Hegemony in LeFanu's Carmilla. In the academic world, this approached immortality, and her pitiless gaze told Nelson that in all that time she had seen dozens if not hundreds of young men just like him come and go.

"I-I-I," stammered Nelson, "I'm just grateful you kept me on as long as you did."

Nelson was short of breath. He wished he could retreat to his office and break down in semiprivate. Perhaps Vita Deonne, his office mate and the only person in the department who still talked to him willingly, would turn her attention from her own real and imagined professional terrors and comfort him. But he had a class to teach in ten minutes. He would have to compose himself in public as he crossed the Quad.

"Don't worry about me," he said again. He stood. "Gosh."

Professor Victorinix stood also, and Nelson stooped to pick up his battered leatherette briefcase full of student papers. He straightened to find Professor Victorinix gliding smoothly around the desk, regarding him with her relentlessly indifferent gaze. He backed away, clutching the briefcase to his chest. Nelson was taller even than most of his students, and he towered above the undergraduate chair. But when Professor Victorinix offered him her hand, Nelson felt as if he came only to her knees, looking up at her like a defenseless child. Still, he met her cool, dry palm with his own. No pressure was applied by either party. Nelson had learned long ago that the handshake of his Iowa upbringing — what his father had called a "manly grip" — was not appropriate in academia. This was a mere brushing of palms, free of any gender typing.

A moment later Professor Victorinix's door closed silently behind him, and Nelson stood in the hall, unable to remember coming out of her office. He felt drained, and he looked woefully down the corridor, wondering if he had the energy to make it to the elevator. This was the highest floor in Harbour Hall, the headquarters of the English Department, where the department's elite had their rooms with a view of the wooded hills surrounding Hamilton Groves, and of the antlike undergraduates on the Quad below. Once upon a time Nelson had aspired to an office on this brightly lit and expensively carpeted hallway. Back when he had been a visiting assistant professor, he had ascended briefly as high as the fifth floor, where he'd had a grand view of the Quad, the Gothic clock tower of Thornfield Library, and the wide, glassy V of the library's underground Annex. Back then, all the secretaries had known his name and had laughed at his mild, self-deprecating jokes. Back then he had traded invitations to lunch with his colleagues while waiting to use the photocopier. Back then Morton Weissmann, his erstwhile mentor, had greeted him every day with a two-fisted handshake and a hearty, "How go the wars this morning, Nelson?"

Now Nelson ascended to the eighth floor only to have another pint of his professional lifeblood drained off. Now the secretaries peered at him warily, watching for the homicidal rage of a disgruntled postal worker. Now the copy machine and its good fellowship were off-limits to him, and he carried his lunch in a paper sack and ate alone in his office. Now he floated above the deep carpeting like a ghost. Colleagues he used to call by their first names didn't even make the effort of averting their eyes. They simply looked right through him, repressing a shudder at the sepulchral chill of failure trailing after him, at the feeling that someone had just stepped on their professional graves.

Nelson swallowed and started down the deep carpet. It always took more effort to walk up here, as if he were treading sand at a very high altitude; the gleaming doors of the elevator seemed to recede the closer he came to them. He heard the whirr of the photocopier and a deep, avuncular laugh coming from the copy room halfway down the hall, some professor deigning to share a joke with a work/study student. Nelson's knees began to tremble, his cheeks began to burn, and he trudged toward the elevators as if ankle deep in the plush pile, ducking his head as he approached the door to the copy room.

With a theatrical gust of laughter, Morton Weissmann, almost an emeritus and the man who had brought Nelson to the university and then abandoned him, stepped into the hallway ahead. Weissmann was a large man, once strikingly handsome but possessed now of the sagging good looks of an aging movie star, his tailored suits hanging a little too loosely off his frame. Still smiling, he lifted his eyes from the sheaf of copies in his large, liver-spotted hand and met Nelson's darting gaze. Nelson, rabbit-scared, caught his breath and sank deeper into the carpet. But Weissmann, who had not so much as said good morning to Nelson in a year, gave him a rictus of a smile and a flip of the hand, like Gregory Peck diffidently acknowledging a fan. He shouldered past Nelson and headed down the hall toward his office.

Nelson, flushed and trembling, waded to the elevators, where he stood knee-deep in the carpet and pushed the button. He lifted his eyes desperately to the little red light climbing through the floors, and prayed that he might have the elevator to himself. But someone wafted alongside him and pushed the button again. The elevator climbed slowly, as if it were being hauled by hand, and Nelson was aware of someone scarlet and slender next to him, radiating like heat. Nelson smelled expensive perfume, but if his life had depended upon it, he couldn't have said what it was.

Don't look, he told himself, don't meet her eye; but without lowering his chin, he slid his eyes to one side and glimpsed Miranda DeLaTour, one of the star performers of the department. She was poised and strikingly featured — cheekbones, chin — with an artfully unruly mane of black hair and a red silk suit that showed off her legs and her narrow waist. She ignored Nelson without any effort at all, as if he simply weren't there. She was rumored to be the lover of the department's chair, the flamboyant and forceful Anthony Pescecane; but Nelson, even in his distress, forced himself to remember that rumors of that sort trailed every attractive woman in the academy. She lifted her hand to her hair, brushed a silken strand off her padded shoulder, and sighed. Nelson held his breath.

The bell dinged, number eight burned red, the elevator doors slithered open. Professor DeLaTour stepped into the car, her sharp heels clicking against the floor. Blinking at Nelson without a trace of recognition, she pressed the button for her floor without waiting for him to get on, and the doors slid shut on Miranda DeLaTour regarding her reflection in the elevator's control panel. Nelson breathed out at last and turned to the stairwell.

The stairs at least gave him a few moments' respite from further embarrassment. He descended with heavy, echoing footfalls, drawing in shallow breaths of dead, stairwell air. In eight years at the University of the Midwest in Hamilton Groves, Minnesota, Nelson had fallen from a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, at the rank of assistant professor, to teaching three sections of composition and one of study skills as a visiting adjunct lecturer on a semester-to-semester contract. Now he was about to become a former visiting adjunct lecturer, on his way to failed academic. At times like this, when he was in need of a spiritual buttress, some inspirational line or scene from English literature often came to him unbidden; an unusually thorough memory of the canon was Nelson's chief attribute as a teacher and a scholar. But today the canon let him down, and all he heard in the leaden reverberation of his descending footsteps was "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow."

At the foot of the stairs he paused among the dust balls and crumpled candy wrappers. He squeezed the dampness out of the corners of his eyes with thumb and forefinger, lifted his gaze to the concrete ceiling, and sighed once, twice, three times. Losing his position meant that his income would stop on the last day of the year, just after Christmas. His health insurance for himself, his wife, and their two young daughters would be cut off, along with their eligibility to live in university married housing. All this would happen a short six weeks from now. Nelson had no savings and no prospects, and now he was about to have no job, no insurance, and no home. The loss of his finger in a few moments would merely add injury to insult.

He squared his shoulders, adjusted his grip on the briefcase, and thought of having to face his tough-minded wife with the news.

"Screw your courage to the sticking-place," he murmured, and he pushed hard at the battered metal door of the stairwell, swinging it wide into the lobby. It promptly swung back and slammed in his face. As Nelson jumped back, he saw through the square little window the furious, bug-eyed glare of Lionel Grossmaul, the chairperson's administrative assistant. Nelson had swung the door open in Lionel's path.

"I, I'm sorry!" Nelson shouted through the smudged glass. His voice reverberated up the empty stairwell, as high-pitched as a girl's.

But Grossmaul swung the murderous beam of his black-rimmed glasses away from Nelson, and beyond him Nelson saw the leonine head of Anthony Pescecane as he swept by. Grossmaul followed, passing out of sight of the window, and Nelson gingerly pushed the door open and peeked out. Chairperson Pescecane swung into the elevator, shooting his expensive cuffs and clasping his powerful hands before his tailored suit coat, his dark gaze fixed in the middle distance. Nelson stepped into the lobby, his arms wrapped around his briefcase.

"I didn't see you," he said.

But Grossmaul moved between Nelson and Pescecane. Lionel Grossmaul was a pear-shaped little man in discount store khakis and a too-tight polyester shirt, and he stepped backward into the car and viciously punched the button. Lionel was Pescecane's sidekick, bitterly loyal, following in Pescecane's train while the more successful man ascended from department to department. In Nelson's few encounters with Grossmaul, the chairperson's assistant had never yielded a kind answer to Nelson. As the elevator doors clapped shut, Grossmaul glared at Nelson with the open contempt he reserved for his institutional inferiors.

Unnerved, Nelson hurried across the lobby, and the outside door was wrenched out of his grasp by a cold wind blowing out of the north. Nelson was fairly sucked out of the building into the chill, and he staggered to a stop. Ominous, ragged blocks of cloud ground together low over the Quad, trailing windblown shreds of gray. The narrow, redbrick clock tower on Thornfield Library, erected not very symmetrically at one corner of the square old building, seemed to glide against the moving clouds, the glaring white face of the clock set against the wind, the ornate black hands pinching together toward twelve. Today was the last day of October, and just as Nelson looked up the clock began to toll noon.

One, tolled the clock, in a long, resonant stroke of the bell, and Nelson was caught in a little dust devil of dry, crackling leaves. The bony fingers of leafless maples were black against the overcast sky, crones swaying to the slow rhythm of the bell all around the Quad.

Two. Nelson put his head down and closed his eyes and clutched his briefcase as the freakish little wind beat around him.

"Professor Humboldt!" someone called.

What an odd thing for someone to call me, Nelson thought. Under the circumstances.

Three. The dust devil pulled at him like a pair of cold, insistent hands. Nelson planted his feet and opened his eyes to see a young man in a hooded black cape just turning away from him in the stream of students moving toward the Quad. Nelson opened his mouth to call after the boy, but he didn't know who it was, and anyway, the kid was walking away, his cape billowing after him. Urged on by the wind, Nelson headed toward his twelve o'clock composition class in the Chemistry Building on the far side of the Quad.

Four, tolled the clock. The tower seemed to sway vertiginously against the rushing clouds, so Nelson kept his eyes down and matched his pace to the rhythm of the bell.

Five. This was the busiest class change of the day, as students entered the Quad from all four corners at once in a slow maelstrom of complex currents and eddies. Out of the eddies little knots formed, students meeting friends or roommates or lovers, talking loudly in the brisk wind, book packs slung over their shoulders. Today a good many of them were in costume.

Six. In spite of his troubles, Nelson loved this scene. It reminded him that he was looking forward to taking his daughters, Clara and little Abigail, trick-or-treating at dusk tonight, through the cul-de-sacs of married housing. Even in his distress, the gentle riot of students across the Quad seemed to Nelson the epitome of what life at university ought to be: bright, good-humored, energetic young people in a hurry to be somewhere else, chattering happily about their classes, their lives, their loves.

Seven. And on Halloween they were parading their secret faces across the Quad. Some were costumed traditionally, as ghosts, vampires, witches. Some were ironic representations of the working people these students of a prestige university would almost certainly never be: nurses, firemen, cops, carpenters. Some were recognizable to Nelson as movie stars or pop singers; some were made up in abstract masks of red and yellow and green. The Bride of Frankenstein walked beside Marge Simpson, their columns of hair bobbing in counterpoint.

Eight. This was more restorative to Nelson than sobbing in his office. Unlike many of his colleagues — unlike most of them, truth to tell — Nelson liked his students. He believed himself to be a fundamentally cheerful man. He counted another stroke of the great bell — nine — and it seemed to him that all of life should have such heedless momentum; all of life should be so full of hope.


Excerpted from The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes. Copyright © 2001 James Hynes. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James Hynes is the author of The Wild Colonial Boy and Publish and Perish, a New York Times Notable Book. His television criticism has appeared in Mother Jones and the Utne Reader. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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The Lecturer's Tale 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a good book; I liked it very much...BUT the book goes from promising in the beginning to just strange in the end. I mean, that whole thing with Vita, Robin, and the clock tower was extremely hard to understand. I reccomend you try reading Dante's Inferno and other classic literature before even attempting to read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The beginning was very slow and almost boring, but as I got into the book I was hooked. I like it very much, but I believe if I was writing the book, Nelson would have done more with his golden finger than to waste it's power on petty professors in some Ivy league college. He would have used it in a bigger way for all of mankind to benefit from it. He had it all and lost it all the second time around. Also, I would give it four stars but the ending wasn't worth it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I read it from cover to cover and enjoyed every page. The whole book is easy to understand and the author incredably makes each charachter have a distinct and memorable place in the book. I liked everything but the ending, but I guess it was the best way to end the book, I may have done it differently. While reading this book, I had a great image of what was happening and I loved that about this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want a perfect send-up of modern English departments, this is your book; I laughed from cover to cover. The temptation to quote is irresistible. I'll stick to this description of the 'academic junk' in a typical faculty mailbox: 'a flyer from a local copy shop, a review copy in a padded envelope (*Where's Waldo? The Representation of Everyman in Emerson*, by J.O. Schmeaux), a glossy call-for-papers ('Anal/yzing the Father: Penetrating Patriarchy from Behind').' Hynes has it down to point of detail!