Smart Book, Dumb Guy

Ted Swenson, burned-out middle-aged novelist, creative-writing teacher and the protagonist of Francine Prose's viperish new novel, tells his students that a good writer can kindle a reader's sympathy for the direst murderer, the slimiest sexual predator. By that standard, Prose is sublime. Chronicling Swenson's bumbling affair with one of his students, this wizardly novelist ("Guided Tours of Hell," "Bigfoot Dreams") satirizes writing workshops, midlife crises, campus politics and politically correct witch hunting. Every character is etched in acid--the campus librarian is "a tall, upright tea cosy of a woman." But her best creations are Swenson, the adulterer whose lies ultimately deceive only himself, and his multiply pierced, spike-haired paramour, Angela Argo, the writing student from hell. "Is the devil ever a woman?" one of Swenson's students asks him early in the novel, and the question echoes to the final page.

The template for this brittle tale is the classic 1930 film "The Blue Angel," the story of a nightclub singer, played by Marlene Dietrich, who seduces and ruins an old professor. Prose's version sticks so close to the film's plot that any chance of suspense is shot from the start for anyone who's seen the movie. But while Swenson's doom is a foregone conclusion, Prose's riffs on the original are so clever that you hang around just to watch her work. For example, near the end of the story, with his ruin all but complete, the self-pitying Swenson goes to a video store to rent "The Blue Angel." When he can't find it, the perky cashier suggests renting "It's a Wonderful Life" instead. "It's the best angel movie there is," she chirps. This is a blisteringly funny yet compassionate novel about making bad decisions. As for the author, she never makes a single wrong move.

Blue AngelFrancine Prose
314 pages. $25