First, is it just me, or does Ivan Doig have a blurb on every book jacket published in or around or about Montana? How does he have the time to read so much while actually writing books? Is Doig, like Homer, a collection of voracious people clumped together under one name? This isn't really the place to go into that, but on the back of Mary Clearman Blew's This Is Not the Ivy League, Doig had this to say: Her "episodes... are as sharp and illuminating as chain lightning on the great American prairie." Whether or not you agree, the image of chain lightning cutting through flat land is an adroit one. If you're expecting a typical Montana memoir, you won't find it here.
The author of All But the Waltz and Jackalope Dreams, Blew is the recipient of two Montana Awards in the Humanities. In her third published memoir, she continues her trajectory of cogent writing, sardonic observation and blatant honesty. Blew writes: "Memories break in pieces, scatter. Which have reassembled themselves in the wrong order, which have been lost?" And her book is unquestionably about the scattered fragments of the past, where they have gone and why. In the process, she manages to redefine the purpose of writing a memoir; namely, to search for the purpose of writing memoir. Linear narrative is secondary to both the anecdote and the maybes inherent in trying to remember how exactly she arrived at this point. She's able to dissolve the contrasts between Then and Now.
Spending most of her words looking back at her time as a professor and, later, Dean of English (and, surprisingly, head of the nursing department) at Northern Montana University in Havre (now University of Montana-Northern), Blew chronicles her love-hate relationship with nearly everything: her husbands, her colleagues, her environment and herself. The eye-catching title is derived from a common response from colleagues to a teacher who liked to begin his sentences with, "At Yale, we used to...", and the fiery riposte is a fitting reflection of Blew's own renegade tone, transforming academic in-fighting into a gripping account. Except for a prelude of Blew as a daughter, a scholar and eventually a mother, and her current stint at the University of Idaho, her experiences are restricted to the Hi-Line and all the weirdness and distress she encountered there.
Blew's storytelling is fine-tuned to burn unforgettable images into the reader's brain: There is the husband who disparages her short stories for always putting him in a negative light, a paranoid professor under the assumption that homosexuals are instigating a coup to take over the college and a fatal rampage on the night streets of Havre.
Blew escapes the pitfalls of idealizing her life by rooting around in the debris of failure and heartbreak, and snatching at the frail threads of identity that are concealed there. Some might object to her pseudo-truthful custom of recording what may or should have happened. But Blew always prefaces these stories with subtle disclaimers that make it even more honest. In the end, these stories are too good to be judged by their literal truth. Blew could minutely describe slicing a piece of fruit and I would listen attentively.
Did I mention how funny this book is? Well, it's very funny, and could be read on that basis alone. Skewering her associates and detailing the overt chauvinism of academia in the 1970s (she was commonly referred to as "that woman with the PhD"), Blew's entertaining vignettes are both sour and surreal. This Is Not the Ivy League is best when situated around the Hi-Line university and its all-consuming conflict, where "faculty offices buzzed with plots, rumors, counterplots, all at the deepest level of seriousness." Every characterization, instead of being mere caricature, is nuanced, hilarious and ultimately tragic. From founding a subterranean theater beneath Cowan Hall to trying to retain the school's faltering accreditation, Blew's flashbacks shift from starkly painful to laugh-out-loud. This mostly academically oriented memoir is a highly original page-turner, that belongs somewhere alongside the bittersweet satires of Kingsley Amis and the agitated campus scheming of Nabokov's Pnin (a similarly inventive romp through the silly intrigues of higher education). This is a candid onrushing of nebulous memories, scholastic grief and the solitary musing of the writer and the mother. It's an unusual approach to nonfiction: an autobiography written by a reliably unreliable narrator. "All stories deserve conclusions," Blew writes, "even if life does not supply them." Strangest of all, it's Blew's very unreliability that makes This is Not the Ivy League so thoroughly absorbing.