by Julie Schumacher
First sentence: “Dear committee members, Over the past twenty-odd years I’ve recommended god only knows how many talented candidates for the Bentham January residency — that enviable literary oasis in the woods south of Skowhegan: the solitude, the pristine cabins, the artistic camaraderie, and those exquisite hand-delivered satchels of apples and cheese…”
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Content: It’s very much an adult book in sensibility; not to mention about a half-dozen f-bombs dropped in frustration throughout the novel. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.
This one has been on my radar for a while; I even was given an ARC by the publishing rep when they came to talk about the lineup a long while back. I just didn’t get around to it until my book group foist it upon me, saying the same thing everyone else did: It’s hilarious. You’ll love it.
It’s the story of Jay Fitger, a tenured English professor at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest, told entirely through his letters of recommendation (and other letters) for various people. At the outset, it’s a brilliant work of fiction: you get a thorough sense of Jay and the kind of professor (and person!) he is through the letters. Also, you get a sense of not just the passing of time, but also the kind of responses he’s getting, without seeing those. These are entirely one-sided letters, and yet I felt like I got a complete picture of everyone in Jay’s life, from his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend (both on campus) to the woman he had an affair with and modeled a despicable character in one of his (bad) novels after. I knew these people (at least on the surface) from the way Jay wrote to them (and about them) in his letters.
But that wasn’t enough for me to love this one. No, I didn’t find it funny because it hit too close to home; my husband is a professor in a small department in a struggling liberal arts college in the Midwest, and the things Jay was dealing with were just too familiar to be funny. In fact, I think this book is funnier the further away from academia you are. (Or at least the English department; the person who chose the book is a biochemistry professor.) But for those of us in the humanities, or at struggling small colleges, it’s just not funny. It’s Truth. And, at least for me right now, Truth wasn’t what I wanted to read.