What academic doesn’t like a book about academics that skewers administration and, while gently poking fun at our inner curmudgeons, shows that beneath the crust is a heart of gold? Julie Schumacher’s premise–to portray Jay Fitger entirely through letters of recommendation (LOR as he likes to call them)–is brilliant. Fitger is a tenured creative writing professor at a midtier Midwestern college aptly named Payne, whose name he plays with relentlessly in closing his LORs. He has authored a few novels, but the last was panned by critics and the first, a barely veiled autobiographical account of his escapades in his writing seminar, cost him friendships that still impact him as the book begins. He writes letters for talented students seeking jobs far beneath them and he tells the addressees as much. He writes letters for mediocre or poor students, and students he does not even know who caught him in the hall, and still manages to fill paragraphs. He struggles with the online forms required by many applications and rails against them in writing hard copy letters that he triumphantly drops in the blue mailbox on the corner. He uses educated vocabulary knowing the recipients likely will not know the words. Through the book he advocates for his last graduate student (the grad writing program at Payne having been cut) as he seeks first a spot at the same seminar he attended, then increasingly desperate positions for the student that would allow him to eat, sleep under a roof, and finish his novel and his degree. The first of these letters is bloated with superlative language and each successive letter is leaner, most honest, down to stark. Through these letters Schumacher takes us from seeking Jay as a pompous ass to someone who desperately cares for his students to the point of sacrificing his own pride and even more.
Jay writes letters to his ex-wife, who works on campus and places students, and to his ex-girlfriend, who is similarly placed to help students. Each time he writes to advocate for a student, but he adds personal appeals. His autobiographical writing got him in trouble with both and a ill-sent email “reply to all” when he meant to simple “reply” cost him his girlfriend.
This is the personal stuff. The really fun stuff, if the above scenarios are not promising enough, is when he writes to his Department Chair, who is a Sociologist brought in by the administration because the English faculty could not choose a leader from their ranks, which, Fitger says, are primarily composed of adjunct faculty who are ineligible and full-time faculty who are either completely ill-suited or unwilling. These letters are full of commentary on administration/faculty relations as well as the decision of administration to elevate certain faculty groups above others (the slow death of the humanities in higher ed). And if those personalities are not fertile enough ground for humor, consider the renovation of the building in which the English faculty resides (beneath the Economics faculty) as the English faculty are forced to endure while the Economics faculty are shuttled off to somewhere safe and above the dust and inconvenience of the construction.
I laughed aloud so many times that my husband asked “is it really that funny?” Yes, it is.
This is a book to be devoured quickly and to savor. And, if recent new stories are to be believed, and sarcasm is, indeed, good for you, it can be counted as health food.