An unhinged faculty faction kidnaps one of Tripoli College’s biggest donors and imprisons him on campus.
“Here is the problem,” a biology professor tells the man, whose ancestors built their fortune on slave labor in the antebellum South. “Your sinecure was paid for in blood.”
Here is the other problem, which Aaron Thier’s mordant and mischievous satire “The Ghost Apple” makes uncomfortably clear: To varying degrees, the same is true for all of us. Welcome to America, where the first-world amenities often have ugly origins.
Thier, who lives in Williamstown, sets his debut novel amid the wild dysfunction and navel-gazing self-delusion of academia. A fictional New England college with a satellite school — the Proxy College of the West Indies — on the Caribbean island of St. Renard, Tripoli has been a microcosm of America’s moral morass from the start.
Established in 1794 as a means of thanks and redress, it was intended to be, in perpetuity, a free school exclusively for the local Native Americans. In 1795, it jettisoned its dead founder’s wishes, admitting “tuition-paying students of all backgrounds.”
By 2009, Tripoli’s affinity for mercenary shape-shifting has only grown. Its endowment is in rough condition, its budget situation is harrowing, and St. Renard-based corporate food giant Big Anna has offered to come to the rescue.
John Kabaka, a visiting professor at Tripoli who is from St. Renard, calls the company’s policies “slavery by another name,” but surely he’s being hyperbolic.
“You want to let these businessmen tell you what happens on campus?” asks Maggie Bell, a Tripoli undergraduate and Kabaka devotee. “You’ll see how it goes: ‘Assignment for Monday is kidnap a Guatemalan boy. Assignment for Tuesday is poison his mother.’”
Not precisely, but she’s in the ballpark.
A young black woman at a very white school, Maggie is having a lonely fall semester. So is Bill Brees, the widowed, 70-year-old dean of students, who has gone undercover as a Tripoli freshman to find out what life there is really like. “What are you,” one of his dorm mates asks, “someone’s grandfather?”
There’s charm in Bill’s naivete, and he’s a decent guy, ineptly disguised though he is. Maggie recognizes him immediately when she meets him at a party, but they start hanging out together. He develops a crush on her, and she gets one on the militant Kabaka, who soon leaves Tripoli and returns to St. Renard. When Maggie decides to spend the spring semester at the Proxy College, where Big Anna has bought control, Bill is not far behind.
“The Ghost Apple” is structured as a collage of documents: Bill’s blog posts, e-mails from Maggie, newspaper articles, letters, a slave narrative. In marketing materials, Big Anna touts its recent “LoCarbonTM initiative on St. Renard, which includes the introduction of clean Human PowerTM plow technology.”
At Tripoli, Big Anna is using the football players — already “academic-exempt,” forbidden from taking classes — as drug-trial guinea pigs. Soon they’ll be sent to St. Renard to “give back” by working on the company’s plantations, while in New England Big Anna foists its new mood-altering, appetite-suppressing dietary supplement on Tripoli students and faculty alike.
Its active ingredient comes from the poisonous ghost apple tree, grown on St. Renard. So what if it causes suicidal urges and “transient combativeness”?
Thier has many forms and multiple centuries of exploitation on his mind, and his convoluted tale can get messy in the execution. Occasionally he proves too fond of his historical research, hewing so closely to reality that he fails to transmute it into fiction.
The greatest frustration comes toward the end of the book, when a key plot strand requires altogether too much suspension of disbelief. Thier also ultimately leaves a main character with an ethical stance that feels like a cynical cop-out, not only for that character but for the author.
Yet “The Ghost Apple” does what satire is meant to do. It makes us laugh and it makes us think.
Thier renders a deranged world that we recognize as our own: a “carnival of cause and effect” that’s cruel, bloody, and out of control.