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An Ode to the Urn Man : ARTS AND SCIENCES by Thomas Mallon (Ticknor & Fields: $16.95; 210 pp.)

February 14, 1988|Georgia Jones-Davis | Jones-Davis is The Times' assistant Book Review editor

Most people, aside from lit majors, think of the English Romantic poets as a group of distracted, pasty-faced airheads who never ventured out into the sun. Actually, they were a very diverse and sometimes randy bunch. Coleridge and Blake probably would have plugged right into the Melrose art scene. Shelley and Byron certainly liked to go to the beach; today they'd be making film deals in Malibu colony, driving BMWs and paying lots of child support. Wordsworth would have been president of the local Sierra Club chapter. And Keats, ah, Keats: Given a good medical plan, a steady stream of book review assignments with an occasional teaching stint thrown in--think of what John Keats could have continued to accomplish. He probably would be living unpretentiously in Santa Monica and driving a Honda. It brings tears to one's eyes.

Imagine if Keats had somehow re-materialized in the fall of 1973 as a 22-year-old graduate student in English at Harvard. That's partly what Thomas Mallon is up to in his novel, "Arts and Sciences."

Mallon's hero, Artie (Arthur) Dunne, a Keats worshiper, really is a Keats clone--a 113-pound mass of quivering, nervous energy and sensibility. Artie even spits blood: When he's extremely agitated, he brushes his teeth--and gums--a tad too vigorously.

He has a special, splendid friend--the cool, earthy Shane, who is tender with Artie, very protective of the smaller man both physically and emotionally. Shane is a lot like Keats' London roomie, Charles Brown, in fact. He even refers to Artie as Keatslet, Urn Man, JK. (And the book's title--"Arts and Sciences"--works as an echo of the two disciplines dominant in Keats' own life--he studied to be an apothecary and a poet. You have to be a Keats fanatic to find all this endearing and amusing. Maybe I'm reading in too much, but that's half the fun.).

Artie, like the original Urn Man, is struggling frantically to make up for his lack of grounding in the classics, particularly in Greek. He's been offered help from the very woman whose attention he has been languishing for--his 20th-Century Fanny Brawne: Angela Downing, a rich, divorced, statuesque Englishwoman of 28 with special plans of her own. Angela is an academic whiz who breezes through her seminars, is addicted to reruns of "The Streets of San Francisco" and "Man From U.N.C.L.E." and views seductions as projects to be undertaken with the same degree of rationale and enthusiasm as a shopping spree.

(Actually, Angela may be standing in for Isabella Jones, an older, sophisticated woman Keats had a (platonic) dalliance with and not the practical-minded, middle-class Fanny Brawne at all.)

One look at the nervous, self-involved, puny, long-haired, under-dressed Artie and what Angela recognizes is potential: Here is a project that will both amuse her and not be much more of a challenge than earning her Ph.D. at Harvard.

A lopsided liaison ensues. Angela is interested in both a physical and psychological makeover of Artie: She tests him emotionally, force-feeds him dinners and "The Tonight Show," buys him clothes at Brooks Brothers and gets his hair trimmed and styled.

Meanwhile, Artie's friend Shane, a college drop-out who has taken to the road, checks in with him by phone or letter and promises to meet him in New York on a certain date in June. Artie feels lost without his Elgin Marble pillar of a buddy and subsists emotionally on the anticipation of Shane's next communique.

By the end of the academic year, things, however, have altered considerably. Shane turns up, but Artie realizes there is no one there to lean on anymore. Artie finds himself standing a little taller, and Angela--"La Belle Dame Sans Merci"--is exhibiting signs of emotional wear and tear.

This is all Sturm-und-Drang in a teacup stuff, as they say. Mallon, an associate professor at Vassar and author of "A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries," delicately orchestrates the emotional realities and the absurd sounding but very real subjects of study that English graduate students and professors take very seriously.

The pint-size hero of this novel could be written off as a self-indulgent wimp. Yet you can't help but root for him. Mallon has captured his "grindy little wonk" of an academic at just the right moment. Imagine a cross between Woody Allen and John Keats on the brink of adulthood and accomplishment, about to step out from the "shadows numberless" and become a nightingale of a literary scholar.

"Arts and Sciences" is a sweet, frothy story that tries to illustrate, as Keats put it, "how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul."

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