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BOOK REVIEW : Bluster Turns Satire Into Pay-Back Tale : JAPANESE BY SPRING by Ishmael Reed , Atheneum, $20, 225 pages


It's hard to say exactly where Ishmael Reed will lose the typical reader in the course of his most recent novel, which is political tract as much as fiction.

Some readers will tune out when the author writes, while discussing the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, that radical feminist Catherine MacKinnon was able to generate publicity for her views because of "contacts with pro-feminist elements of the TV networks' cultural elite."

Others will last through his analysis of the downfalls of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Marion Barry, which Reed attributes to their doing no more than "what the big boys did." A few readers won't abandon ship until Reed makes the novel's most outlandish claim: that the bombing of Pearl Harbor was precipitated by the United States, an American embargo having "forced Japan's hand."

That these assertions should be promoted in "Japanese by Spring" isn't particularly startling, for Ishmael Reed can be depended on to articulate extreme, combative views, frequently centering on the all-too-plausible belief that black men are America's favorite scapegoats.

It is startling, though, that the views put forward here should be brazenly unsupported, Reed having made no more than halfhearted arguments on their behalf--when he bothers to make an argument at all.

It's a mystery: why Reed, a multiculturalist with his African-American, European and Cherokee ancestry, should give aid and comfort to his enemies--racists, reactionaries, know-nothings--by pandering, as he often does here, to the analogous pockets of prejudice and paranoia in minority cultures.

When Reed flatly announces, for example, that "the '80s' curtailment of social programs in the U.S. amounted to an economic embargo against an enemy nation," he sounds like a conspiracy theorist who shouldn't be taken seriously.

Reed, who lives in Oakland and teaches at UC Berkeley, seems to be in an ideal position to write a campus satire on the numberless ideologies, most notably political correctness, that infect college life these days. And at first that appears to be the goal of "Japanese by Spring," when it becomes clear that the college where the novel takes place is being bought by Japanese interests.

The setup is almost inspired: not only will the Eurocentrics get a taste of their own medicine under the new regime but so will myriad flavor-of-the-week theorists, be they feminist, Marxist or deconstructionist. And, indeed, the expected comeuppances do occur, though in a scattershot manner, with Reed throwing more showy haymakers than effective body blows.

Reed's protagonist, the unpleasantly named Chappie Puttbutt, is an African-American teaching English at Oakland's fictional Jack London College.

He is on the verge of getting tenure in the humanity department, and it's something he's worked for assiduously and without principle: He has adopted a feminist perspective solely for professional advancement and not coincidentally has abandoned his cultural roots (despite having been a Black Panther in his youth).

An opportunist of the first water, Puttbutt has done more than memorize "every mediocre line by Zora Neale Hurston" and learned to "toss around terms like phallocentricity ." He has also written articles opposing affirmative action and frequently proclaimed that the black community's problems are of its own making.

Puttbutt, in short, is an amalgam of conservative black academics like Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele--though in caricature, for never does Reed hint that some of Puttbutt's beliefs might be sincerely held, might contain a even small kernel of truth.

No. Puttbutt is content to see himself as "a sort of intellectual houseboy," to believe that tenure is awarded above all for skill in university politics, not scholarly analysis. But even that view is insufficiently cynical: Puttbutt is betrayed yet again by the white Establishment, for the professorship he believes he's been promised goes instead to a high-priced Asian lesbian feminist.

Puttbutt, who has been studying Japanese in a fashionable attempt to take advantage of "global realities," appears destined for oblivion until an Asian investment group purchases the campus and installs Puttbutt's language teacher as its president; he in turn hires Puttbutt as his right-hand man.

"Japanese by Spring" should take off at this point, as Puttbutt wreaks revenge on his tormentors, but Reed doesn't allow the character to come into his own.

Puttbutt remains a pawn--of the new administration, which erects a statue of Tojo and eventually fires Puttbutt, and of his own family, which Reed introduces as part of an unsatisfying subplot about militarism.

Most of all, though, Puttbutt remains a pawn of his creator, and that is the principal reason this novel generates significantly more heat than light. Reed, a tenure-battle veteran himself, has made "Japanese by Spring" a pay-back novel rather than a satire, filling it not with revealing arguments and portraits but with personal and political attacks on those with whom he disagrees.

The result is a troubling work--troubling not because Reed is wrong but because he has damaged a generally correct position with bluster and invective.

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