Most of the charm of this short, funny book about academia is in the snarkiness and sheer inappropriateness of the letters of reference written by Professor Jason Fitger. These letters of reference form the entire contents of the novel, and it's something of a triumph of ingenuity over form that the novel actually has a bit of a plot, and, by the end, a bit of emotional resonance too.
We discover a fair bit about Fitger as he grumbles, insults and reminisces his way through letters that are only nominally about the students or faculty members he is (nominally) recommending for various jobs, positions or grants - in many cases, recommending them to one of several women with whom he has been romantically involved in the past. What's interesting is that by the end of the novel, we believe we know Fitger a bit better than he knows his self-deprecating self.
Mostly, however, this novel is an endless source of chuckles or occasional outright laughs, especially if you've spent any time in academia at all. Who among the beleaguered reference-writing faculty would not wish to actually be able to write a letter like this? (I'm quoting it in full just for fun):
December 16, 2009
State Senator Pierce Balnearo's Office
The Halls of Power
Honorable Internship Coordinator:
This letter's purpose is to recommend to you - in the capacity of unpaid labor, presumably licking envelopes and knocking on doors - Malinda Heisman, a student in my Multicultural American Literature class. Malinda is an A student, a wide-eyed earnest individual who will undoubtedly benefit from a few months spent among the self-serving pontificates in the senator's office.
Malinda is intelligent; she is organized; she is well spoken. Given her aptitude for research (unlike most undergraduates, she has moved beyond Wikipedia), I am sure that she will soon learn that the senator, his leathern face permanently embossed with a gruesome rictus of feigned cheer, has consistently voted against funds for higher education and has cosponsored multiple narrow-minded backwater proposals that will make it ever more difficult for her to repay the roughly $38,000 in debt that the average graduate of our institution inherits - along with a lovely blue tassel - on the day of commencement.
Malinda's final essay in my class - here it is on my desk, among a cast of thousands - is a windy but assiduous reading of Jamaica Kincaid's "At The Bottom of the River." The essay demonstrates strong writing skills and rigorous thinking. Allow Malinda the privilege of laboring in your office for nothing (she'll probably continue to work nights as a barista in the coffee empire), and I am confident you will be making, though perhaps not in the ways you might have intended, a remarkable contribution to her education.
With all best wishes, I remain
Your devoted public servant,
Jay Fitger, Professor of the Lost Arts
I do hope that excerpt will spur some other readers on to discover Julie Schumacher. There's a sequel, "The Shakespeare Requirement", on my tbr shelf, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it.