ZADIE SMITH reading with DIANA EVANS , NICK LAIRD, HELENE OYEYEMI Friday (October 21), 8 pm, at Premiere Dance Theatre; interviewed by Rebecca CaldwellSaturday (October 22), 1 pm, at Lakeside Terrace.
ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith (Penguin), 443 pages, $34 cloth. Rating: NN Rating: NN
It must be a drag to be Zadie Smith. Too famous too fast, with too many expectations and too many comparisons - of other writers to her.
Where does the British author of White Teeth go to escape the label of UK literary it girl? To the U.S., of course. Unfortunately, Smith's personal experience in the Ivy League environment doesn't translate into a deeply felt piece about blacks inside American academia. It's baffling how On Beauty made the Booker short list.
The story's got the ingredients for success. Two black male professors are on opposing sides in the culture war and take winning very personally.
Art historian Howard Belsey is writing an iconoclastic book on Rembrandt while trying to press for affirmative action for black students. Monty Kipps is Rembrandt's defender and sneers at Belsey for political ideas that he feels treat black people as victims.
Belsey's got family problems to deal with. He's just had a stupid affair and has a lot of emotional ground to make up with his wife and three children. Kipps, whose wife is ailing, likes to get some on the side, too. And his daughter is pure sexual dynamite, and Belsey's starting to feel it.
Belsey's children have their own issues. Co-habiting with furiously feuding parents, they're discovering that privilege and political activism are a volatile combination and street cred doesn't come easily.
This is all interesting material, even if it gets superficial treatment, and Smith has created a wonderful character in Belsey's wife, Kiki. Emotionally grounded, honest, sensual, direct - a perfect foil for Belsey's cerebral ditherer - she is the book's beating heart.
But if On Beauty is going to work as a novel, Howard Belsey is the character we have to connect to. Ultimately, stories about middle-aged males - black or white - who can't control themselves around women 30 years their junior are getting very tired.