Margot Mifflin
April 26, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Starting from the premise that ”any spark can set off the tinderbox of gender war,” Francine Prose, a literary arsonist with blistering wit, sends up both smug academics and politically correct undergrads in the satirical bonfire Blue Angel. Ted Swenson has taught creative writing at an off-brand college for 20 years when Angela Argo, a pierced-to-the-gills ”quivering punk Chihuahua,” comes to class and blows his mind with her precocious writing.

Swenson, happily married and heretofore faithful, sleeps with her. When Argo spins their consensual act into sexual harassment, taking her case to the dean and skewering Swenson with taped evidence, his wife leaves him, his colleagues turn on him, and he attends a hearing in which gratuitous details of his personal life are offered up as proof of his guilt.

Prose’s knot-work narrative is meticulously constructed, though sometimes at the expense of her characters, and laced with ingenious subplots (Argo’s fiction is about a high school student who fools around with her teacher, and this first novel is named after Marlene Dietrich’s ”Blue Angel,” about a lovelorn scholar). While the ending is predictable, ”Blue Angel” describes Swenson’s downward spiral with enough lacerating humor to make tenure-minded professors everywhere duck and cover.

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