WITH A SERIAL KILLER on the loose at a small liberal arts college in Ohio, it isnt only the students and faculty who are in danger. Its the college itself.
The question hanging over P.F. Kluges entertaining new novel is this: Who will go down first the killer or the college?
Kluges plot doesnt seem at all implausible. How many murders would have to take place before parents began pulling their children from an isolated, rural college, no matter what its academic reputation? Ivy-covered walls may be appealing, but not if a murderer could be lurking behind them. Better to ship Junior off to a community college and have him home by six every night.
And, as in Kluges novel, the list of suspects would inevitably be long from disgruntled ex-professors to admissions personnel from a rival school competing each year with greater desperation for fickle students.
The campus of what is certainly Kenyon College, Kluges alma mater and the place he teaches now, shakes after a professor is murdered. It trembles to its core after a pair of students are killed. Will one more murder be the tipping point?
In the meantime, the college tries to solve the case with a less-than-crack investigative team, one of whose members, Billy Hoover, helps narrate the book. (The other narrators are the colleges president, Warren Niles, and one of its creative writing teachers, Mark May.) Each member of the team indeed, everyone on campus has an opinion about who the murderer might be. But prejudices cloud clear thinking, and midway through the novel the murders are as big a mystery as always.
And then someone else a prospective student, no less is killed.
Kluge does a fine job of keeping the plot moving even though it becomes clear early in the novel that he has another agenda besides spinning a good, old-fashioned mystery. Kluge is interested in the way colleges work, or dont work, these days. So via his characters, he editorializes about the value of everything from creative writing workshops to college fundraising to tenure. Most of this is entertaining; it will be especially entertaining for readers in academia. (Kluge has traveled this territory before. He wrote a nonfiction account of a year-in-the-life of Kenyon College in 1995. Called Alma Mater: A College Homecoming, it contains no serial killer.)
Final Exam isnt, alas, flawless. Although Kluges three narrators offer different perspectives on the same crimes (and the same endangered college), they sound similar. Billy Hoover, who isnt a college graduate, is as introspective and intelligent as the colleges president. Hes also the best storyteller of the bunch. Perhaps Kluge is making a point about the arbitrary hierarchy on a college campus, as well as the facility of an un-workshopped storyteller, but I suspect he was busy concentrating on other matters his plot, his wry observations on college life and allowed one narrators voice to blend with the others.
He also allows an opportunity slip when, after bringing in Lisa as a love interest for Billy, he exiles her for what feels like a hundred pages.
In addition, Im not sure Kluge anticipated to what extent his college would go to protect itself against future murders. If establishing its own Department of Homeland Security would be too expensive, the college might at least have thrown up a barbed-wire fence and employed its own version of the Guardian Angels.
These are minor complaints. Overall, Kluges novel is a fun read, with some serious and, even more entertaining, frivolous points to make about academia. Kluge seems to dare readers to transfer what Warren Niles says about another book [it] fell apart after a promising start, ending in unbelievable contrivances to Final Exam. But Final Exam is better than that. Indeed, it passes the test.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel published in 2000 by Van Neste Books. His new collection of stories, An American Affair, won the George Garrett Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from Texas Review Press later this year. Brazaitis is an assistant professor of English at West Virginia University.