Academia and Travel: Brad Leithauser’s “The Promise of Elsewhere”

I’m thoroughly enjoying Brad Leithauser’s new novel, The Promise of Elsewhere, a brilliant academic satire about a professor on vacation.  Prior to this, I knew Leithauser’s work only from his introduction to the Penguin edition of Kristin Lavransdatter.

The experience of reading Leithauser’s sharp, elegant novel is rather like reading Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America crossed with Alison Lurie and David Lodge. But it’s not all comedy:  at times it’s poignant and painful.

Louie, the protagonist, is a professor of art history at Ann Arbor College (AAC), which he emphasizes is not the University of Michigan.  The  students at AAC, a dinky undistinguished college, are so dull and naive that his art history classes inevitably turn into English comp.  The most popular class at AAC is “13 Ways of Looking at The Flintstones,” taught by a medievalist with a Ph.D. from Berkeley.

Louie is not just a disgruntled professor. His personal life is on the skids. A cop arrested his wife and her lover for  indecent behavior–having sex in a car. And so Florence has lost her job as a third grade teacher,  and she and her lover are, ironically, living in the Virgin Islands.

Louie is tired of being the subject of gossip, so he decides to spend the summer  traveling in Europe and Asia to look at his favorite architecture.   But somehow he doesn’t connect in Rome, even though he loves the Pantheon.  And so he goes off his bipolar meds, hoping to make the experience more real.  He thinks he can control his disease with time-honored alcohol and caffeine.

Impulsively he goes to London, because he suddenly wants to be surrounded by English speakers.  He finds excellent coffee in London.

Louie could sit here all day. His cappuccino is better than what was typically served in Italy, though predictably not as good as what you’d find in Ann Arbor at Roa’s Deli, where the beans might have been roasted that morning.

Louie is also an excellent guide to the Dickens Museum, though hilariously he hasn’t read Dickens.

Dickens’s life and work present another topic he would hate to encounter in a televised quiz show before a studio audience of his disillusioned, headshaking students. Louie knows he finished A Tale of Two Cities (back in advanced English in twelfth grade at Fallen Hills High) and feels fairly confident of having completed Oliver Twist; in any case he saw Oliver!, the movie musical. He’d like to claim he’s read A Christmas Carol, but he may be confusing the book with the old Alastair Sim movie

I was very amused when Louie considered going home to Ann Arbor and simply  writing a blog about a trip–he could make it up!  But he soldiers on, even if it’s off the beaten track.

It’s a pleasure to read a really good new book.  I know there are some great new books out there, but I must confess that I’ve already rejected six in three months after only 25 pages.

Leithauser, a poet, novelist, and essayist, teaches at The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.

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