Yesterday, I meandered into my favorite second-hand book bazaar to kill some time before treating a friend to a belated birthday lunch at the diner of a nearby bowling alley (his choice). Pickings were slim on this visit but I was fortunate to find a copy of Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher which I began reading in the car while waiting for the birthday boy to arrive and completed it by beddy-bye. As regular Reed-ers know, I'm a sucker for an epistolary novel and this slender collection of letters of recommendation doesn't disappoint.
The letter writer, Jay Fitger, is a creative writing professor at the appropriately named Payne University, a small Midwestern school whose English department has seen far better days. He labors in a building that is under extensive construction, mostly for the benefit of the Economics department whose upstairs offices are getting a royal makeover while his department suffers toxic dust, loud noises, and foul, leaky restrooms. Retired professors aren't being replaced, funding has gone the way of the dodo, grad students aren't being added, and the new department head is (gasp!) a sociologist.
Like the department, Fitger, a once promising novelist whose backlist is largely out of print, is slowly spiraling into literary obscurity. His spark for academia no longer burns brightly and his personal relationships are in tatters. Like Sid Straw in Michael Kun's delightful The Locklear Letters, Fitger can't get out of his own way. Unlike Sid, he is not a likeable man. He is bombastic, cranky, misanthropic, sexist, and unpopular with colleagues and administrators, all of which he is acutely self-aware. Seemingly, he spends more time writing letters of recommendation for students and colleagues than he does teaching or other more literary pursuits. But oh, the letters!
Schumacher, herself an academic at the University of Minnesota, is obviously no stranger to the folderol but she imbues Fitger's considerable ire with biting commentary on the state of academia and publishing to great effect. In one instance, he writes on a friends' behalf to a Dean of a school he believes entirely unworthy of her. And so:
"Let's consider the facts: Carole is comfortably installed at a research university--dysfunctional, yes; second tier, without question--but we do have a modest reputation here at Payne. Shepardville, on the other hand, is a third-tier private college teetering at the edge of a potato field and is still lightly infused with the tropical flavor of offbeat fundamentalism propagated by its millionaire founder, a white-collar criminal who is currently--correct me if I'm wrong--atoning for multiple financial missteps in the Big House in Texas". Ouch.
Later in the novel, he grudgingly defends his own department head to Payne's Dean of Arts & Sciences: "In my wildest nightmares I never imagined that I would make or endorse such a recommendation, akin to Hamlet naming Uncle Claudius counsel (Hamlet is a play by a writer named William Shakespeare: I'll send you a copy on some other occasion.)"
While it might have been enough to let Fitger froth at the mouth for the entire 180 pages, Schumacher wisely and slowly brings about a sense of decency in the man, mostly in his desire to help a promising grad student in whose novel, a re-telling of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener set in the accounting department of a 1960's Vegas casino, he believes and the reappearance of an old friend with whom he studied at an Iowa-like writing program years before. On their behalves, Fitger reaches out to agents, publishers, and academics in a knowing effort to do something for someone other than himself. While he doesn't spare his spleen with any of these recipients, he makes an uncharacteristically sincere effort with mixed results.
If I had a criticism, it is that the ending came too quickly, both in the narrative sense and for my own selfish reason that I didn't want the book to end. Both of these are small beer compared to the joy the book brought me. Find a copy soon.