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Academy Gothic
James Tate Hill
Southeast Missouri State University Press
244 Pages; Print, $15.00

Add “decaying college” to the ranks of “town with no cheer” and “the tears of a clown” on the list of saddest things ever. In James Tate Hill’s debut novel, Academy Gothic, the reader is dropped into withering Parshall College, one of the worst academic institutions in the nation. Plagued by greed, sloth, and a host of other sins, both cardinal and venial, the college is quite literally falling apart. The library is without power, elevators don’t work (like most Parshall employees), the sidewalks are being reclaimed by nature, the brunt of campus smells like a toilet, and rather than offices, most of the staff works in cubicles at the bottom of Parshall’s empty pool. The students themselves are the lowest of the low but paying plenty—this is where Billy Madison would matriculate. Despite being satire, the potential reality of this scenario playing out in our academia hangs throughout this novel like a rusty, dull Sword of Damocles, coupling every genuine laugh in this darkly funny book with an uneasy, clammy chuckle.

Adding to Parshall’s action item list is the death of Dean “Scoot” Simkins, hardly beloved by his faculty and staff but needed all the same. Enter our hero, the legally blind and barely qualified Professor of Business, Tate Cowlishaw, who almost literally stumbles onto the scene. Dead in his office at Parshall, Scoot is about to be scooped, bagged, and tagged when Tate realizes his boss has considerably more holes in his head than he ought—and though one extra is considerable enough, Scoot has three. Ruled a suicide, the death strikes Tate as suspicious, and he begins sniffing around the dilapidated campus for clues. He’s obliged to keep sniffing when the temperamental and somewhat more fastidious interim dean, Delilah Bibb, tells him he can either solve the crime or lose his job. Also invested are Carly Worth, a writer with a novel forthcoming—and thus suspected to be departing Parshall—and Tate’s old flame, Mollie DuFrange, a poet, both of whom aid and mislead Tate as he unravels the mystery of Scoot’s murder and its deeper implications for everyone involved.

What begins, early on, to feel like a paint-by-numbers noir with a side of academic satire grows into something much more thanks to Hill’s relentless wit and charm. Half the conceits in the book are a gas, from Tate’s primary function per the primary school trustee, F. Randolph Parshall, as a paranormal investigator/placator to the swirling vortex of ineptitude that is nearly every member of the cast. There’s Hoopel, the wannabe reporter, and Thayer, a detective inexplicably moonlighting as an actor (or vice versa), and Thayer’s Bad Cop partner, Stashauer. Most everyone, it seems, is destined to open a law firm with either a TV spot or bench ad, given their mostly wonky names. But this is just one more conceit that proves Hill’s tirelessness at; while not necessarily making the reader split their sides, he ensures almost every single line delivers some kind of gag. Hill wastes no opportunity for a jab. At a bar/café for an open-mic night, Tate and Hill—you sense the two aren’t terribly far apart—deliver the following:

I sipped my watery Americano with tasting notes of sneaker and hard water. In my experience, cafes that are also bars aren’t much of either. [End Page 20]

“I’m going to read from a one-act play in progress,” the next amateur said nervously into the microphone. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s a screenplay.”

There’s nothing flashy about Hill’s humor, as you can see; he simply delivers time after time, and the reader is worked over mercilessly. Tate’s observations and perspective are consistently cutting, droll, and assured, making him about as pleasant and entertaining a protagonist as you’re likely to find this side of noir.

Academy Gothic isn’t all humor, though. As with the sad reality...