By Daniel Arimborgo
A board game between God and the Devil to decide the fate of students on a college campus in upstate New York, monitored by a sentient creature whose mass-less, shapeless blob is invisible to all. A grandmother of the Devil, who is infatuated with Vlad the Impaler. A talking necklace pendant inhabited by the soul of its deceased owner.
These are just some of the characters spawned from the fertile imagination of York College physics professor Gene Levin, who finds time amid teaching about the behavior of subatomic particles and writing for scientific journals to pen fantasy novels. (He can’t help it — it’s genetic. His cousin Ira Levin wrote the famous “Rosemary’s Baby” story.)
The plot of the professor’s latest novel, “The Devil’s Grandmother” highlights Satan’s attempt to free Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Voevod as he is called in the book, from the confines of eternal damnation, so his 4,000-year-old grandmother — who, Satan says, “unfortunately looks every year of it” — can hopefully marry him.
The Devil would like to get rid of Vlad — one tough cookie, even in Hell — who is always stirring up trouble. Satan sees his chance by sending him on a mission to corrupt the students of Fairweather College, where Vlad will secure employment as the new dean (mCollegeaybe it’s not such a fantasy after all …). In return for successfully winning the game for the Devil, he will gain his freedom — after the added stipulation from God that Vlad “must make something out of nothing.” (Here it seems Levin’s scientific background comes out — a fundamental law of Newtonian physics states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed).
Levin, of Little Neck, has been writing fiction for nearly 20 years. The Blunger family, characters from Levin’s last novel, “The Inn at the End of the World,” reappear in this one. Myron and Sophie Blunger, the parents of Physics professor Irving Blunger, have already had exposure to otherworldly characters: Sophie has ridden on Pegasus, the flying horse, and Myron has conversed with God, who commanded him to lose 22 pounds. Irving, up until now, has thought them both nuts, until he starts meeting some strange characters himself.
Levin is at his best when satirizing academia, as when he shows how the university president, Simon Kipner, is only concerned with the bottom line and keeping up the college’s appearances for the probing eyes of state education monitors whom he calls ferrets. He does this by obsessively meeting all manner of quotas any way he can, aided by the deceptive computer program PREXY 4.1, which is programmed to cook the university’s books when necessary.
The first chapters of the book are inhabited by demons, imps, and other minions of all sorts that lurk in the bowels of a very corporately run Hell, doing their master’s bidding. But the fun really begins when some of these netherworldly characters start interacting with the mortals above. Satan, whose influx of damned souls has been dropping off precipitously the last couple of years, bets God he can lure the students toward his direction in a game called “The Seven Deadly Sins.” He monitors the game on a magical, scaled-down replica of the campus, with small pieces representing the college body.
Vlad turns to be to be just what the college needs — a strict disciplinarian, as he proceeds to whip the students into shape by having them quiz each other on exam questions the night before finals, while they gather limbs from the surrounding campus trees, fashioning them into stakes.
Intervention from Above and Below ensure that mayhem ensues, as the Last Blast Before Finals, the students’ final party — and what Satan sees as his golden opportunity for securing hundreds of souls — draws near.
Now you didn’t really think we were going to give away the ending, did you?
Levin says his book will appeal to college students as well as “the people who read J.R. Tolkien 25 years ago, and those reading Harry Potter books today, when they grow up.”
Asked if he was trying to say he felt there should be a little more Vlad in today's college deans to foster better discipline in today's universities, Levin just laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t know, I’ll leave that up to the reader to figure out.”
Reach Qguide writer Daniel Arimborgo by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.