Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Book Review: "A Foreign Education"

Fellow fratirist Craig Alan Williamson has joined this little community of bloggers on lad lit, and his hazing includes a playful poke inside his new campus-comedy novel. The title would suggest it's aimed at an audience of Brits like himself, since goings-on at the University of Colorado would hardly be considered foreign to Yanks. (Someone should explain to Craig that Americans don't "sort" their problems. We reserve that activity for our sock drawers on nights when we despair of venturing out.) Like his hero Ross Cooper, Craig did time at CU--majoring in physics, no less. Geekier than that they don't get, and the story of the callow and sensitive intellectual who is bewildered by sex is a familiar fish-out-of-water theme.

Ross's story isn't American Pie or even Salisbury Pasty. (Okay, one character saves fecal samples from the jock villain in jars, but thankfully no details emerge. And be glad that the manner of collection is also left entirely to the imagination.) In short, you might expect CU life as observed by a too-polite Brit to be a gross-out, but it's not. In tone, it's more like Goodbye, Columbus than Portnoy's Complaint.

In fact, the happenings in dorm Cheyenne Arapaho are so verisimilitudinous, so mundane, that one wonders if we're not reading an autobiography helped by a cleverly cached digital voice recorder (one of those geek techno-tricks).

The subtle attraction of A Foreign Education stems from its literary heritage--the Victorian romance. You know the plot--if either of the lovers could manage to form the words "I love you," there would be no story. Ross lusts after the luscious April but just won't blurt it out, and their courtship is pretty much pathetically Platonic until, well, it's not. (Don't tell me you didn't see that coming.) So I guess you'd call it justice--Bridget Jones updates Jane Austen; Ross Cooper dusts off the corpse of Edith Wharton and gives her a good shagging.

Don't get me wrong. This book has courage--the boldness to describe collegiate sexual angst as something other than a feverish quest for the slam-bam conquest. Early on, Ross actually turns down freely offered sex, not because the partner is repulsive, but because she's attractive and yet he has no feelings for her. His roommate Jak suffers a chronic, inexplicable case of E.D.--inexplicable until you realize that performance anxiety might not be all that uncommon in a generation confronted by STDs, identity crises, competitive stress, and endless commercials for duration-prolonging pills.

This book is wry, wise, and touching. If you start it thinking that's a chicken-shit way to approach a sex comedy, you might end up rethinking what it is to be a "real man."

By the way, these days Craig works as a research scientist, lives in Salisbury with his wife and his laptop. Seems like he got his priorities sorted. (And I'm really curious whether his wife is American and has green eyes!)

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