Professor Jason T. Fitger is not a happy man. His beloved creative writing program (underfunded, unappreciated, and not a money-maker for his employer, Payne University) has been gutted, his graduate program suspended and his building racked by never-ending construction as the college spares no expense to renovate the upper floors to accommodate the expanding Department of Economics. Worst of all, he can’t place his star graduate student in the prestigious writing residency he deserves. His literary output has devolved into an endless parade of letters of recommendation. His ex-wife and his former lover have compared notes, read the incriminating passages in his latest thinly-veiled and poorly reviewed novel, and combined forces to vilify him. Adding insult to injury, a sociologist has been installed as the English Department’s Head. What’s a passionate, cranky, acerbic man of letters to do?
Professor Fitger writes. And writes. And he keeps writing – on paper, of course – the mordant, sarcastic, snarky, hilarious letters of recommendation that dominate his life and have become his only creative output. He still cares intensely and extravagantly about his students, and he does his best to write them into the jobs/graduate schools/post-docs, etc. they need. He cajoles, rebukes, pleads, capitulates, castigates and bargains for his students, his shrinking creative writing department and perhaps his soul,for this often unlikeable and very irritable man has not stopped caring about teaching. His devotion to his students and his tireless, if sometimes dispiriting, efforts on their behalf humanize this burned-out professor and make the reader care what happens to him and his beloved craft.
I read this book initially for the humor, and because I love an epistolary novel. I didn’t want to finish it when I got about half-way, as Professor Fitger started to depress me; I just didn’t like him enough to care what happened to him. I was intrigued about his hapless last graduate students and it was for them that I finished the book. I’m really glad I plowed through it – I won’t give away the ending, which you will see coming and dread, but the book ends on a redemptive, hard-won note of self-knowledge and renewal for the embattled professor. I give this breezy, deceptively simple and often hilarious novel an emphatic “two pens up.”