February 22, 2020

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Making the grade

Promiscuous professor at centre of clever, timely debut

If it had been released by a big national publisher, rather than the literary imprint of a small Winnipeg house, this incendiary comic novel would have had the chattering classes in a lather.

But Privilege, a farcical and timely satire of university political correctness from Calgary-based first-time author Jason Patrick Rothery, has so far been met with... uh... Silence. Crickets. Not a peep.

Michael Rothery photo</p><p>Jason Patrick Rothery’s plot points have been cleverly lifted from real-life events. </p>

Michael Rothery photo

Jason Patrick Rothery’s plot points have been cleverly lifted from real-life events.

What a shame, because Rothery makes hilarious hay with all the flashpoints that characterize the culture of offence said to mark current campus life.

Sexual politics. Trigger warnings. Microaggressions. Safe spaces. Bias reports. You name it, they all have a role in this Mordecai Richler-esque take on a sexually promiscuous professor who learns the limits of his white male privilege.

The novel boasts a panoply of supporting characters from academia and politics. It is also cleverly structured and intricately plotted.

Its only failings are smack dab on the cover — a terribly didactic title and dreadful design, both beneath professional standards.

Privilege is set at the University of Toronto, although the institution and indeed the city itself are never named.

Rothery’s protagonist is a divorced 35-year-old professor of communications and media studies, Barker Stone, whose upwardly arcing career, propelled by a noteworthy academic monograph on video games, gets derailed by charges of sexual impropriety by a female grad student.

This main conflict is lifted from a real-life 2016 scandal at the University of British Columbia, in which a well-known novelist was fired from his post as head of the creative writing faculty under similar circumstances.

But there is more. Thanks to his budding reputation as a 21st-century Marshall McLuhan, Barker is hired as a consultant to do damage control for a populist mayoral candidate, nicknamed "the Albino Rhino" and a dead ringer for Toronto’s late Rob Ford.

Lifting plot points from prominent real-life events should aid a book’s marketing. But what makes Privilege take off is the sophistication of its themes, its breathless comedy and the impressive quality of its writing.

Rothery, a self-described "lapsed academic," walks a razor’s edge between informed discussion of postmodern literary theory and lampooning it outright.

His sharp ear for comic dialogue must come from his 15 years as a playwright in Toronto. He favours short, crisp sentences, often fragments with dropped subjects, to suggest Barker’s harried frame of mind: "Brewed another pot of coffee. Wondered why he had. Dumped it. What day was it? Saturday."

He uses italics — often to indicate what Barker is thinking rather than saying — as a running joke.

Even his practice of spelling out acronyms — P.R. as "pee-ar" and IMHO as "ai-em-aitch-oh" — provide a chuckle.

Trigger warning: This is a male novel — profane, cynical and priapic. Barker may be an intellectual, but he is also a satyr.

When he agrees to help a flirtatious undergraduate with her stage adaptation of David Mamet’s Oleanna, his motives may not be entirely, uh, professorial.

Privilege owes something to the dark male novels of Toronto’s Russell Smith and David Gilmour. It also tips its hat to some of the great campus literary comedies of the 20th century — from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim to Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

A set piece toward the end, in which Barker attends Oleanna’s opening night, only to end up drunk and having his car impounded, is literary farce at its best.

Topical, hilarious, controversial, Privilege is an unheralded gem. Please don’t judge it by its cover.

Morley Walker is a retired Free Press journalist.

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Updated on Monday, January 27, 2020 at 11:43 AM CST: adds cover with author's name

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