I HAD TO stop reading this for a few weeks when I was about a third of the way in--it was just too sad. Not as sad as John Williams's Stoner, perhaps; the unlucky English professor in Schumacher's novel is often his own worst enemy, given to angry hyperbole, airing of old grievances, and intemperate rants of all kinds, and thus not nearly as sympathetic or as cruelly thwarted as poor Prof. Stoner. But little to nothing has gone as it was supposed to go for Jason Fitger, and seeing him make his bad situation worse from week to week is rough if you identify with him a little, as I, Lord help me, do.
Schumacher has hit on the extraordinary device of revealing Fitger's works and days through an epistolary novel that is all recommendation letters, all of them by Fitger, written over the course of one academic year. Most of the letters are on behalf of current or former students desperately hoping to catch on somewhere in a professional world that has little regard for the humanities in which they have been trained.
Fitger writes many letters on behalf of Darren Browles, a doctoral candidate, whose success Fitger hopes will revive the floundering graduate creative writing program he heads. Browles has been working away for years on a massive historical novel in which Melville's scrivener Bartleby works in a bordello. Unsurprisingly, every editor, agent, foundation, and writer's colony Fitger tries to interest in Browles takes a pass.
In his letters, Fitger seems unable to stop himself from diving tangentially into such topics as the decline of the humanities, the parlous state of the English department's facilities, his ex-wife, his ex-girlfriends, his clueless department chair, his several-bricks-shy-of-a-load colleagues, and...you get the picture. In his letters, he's a complaint machine with a gift for invective, the principal power of which seems to be to worsen his own situation. Everyone is pissed off at him, and as readers, we know exactly why.
We also gradually learn about his past, his apprenticeship in the legendary workshop of H. Reginald Hanf (which seems to have the status of being a Stegner Fellow, say, or working with Gordon Lish), the friends and enemies he made there, the tell-all roman à clef he wrote about it, and so on, leading to his now-ended marriage, his appointment at Payne University (too obvious a touch, maybe--the chair is named Boti), and the mess he generally is in.
But the clouds clear a bit towards the end. For all his cantankerousness, Fitger is generous, does really value the humanities, and sincerely hopes to help his students. Thanks to Fitger's letters, one of them hits it big with a novel about a human-cheetah hybrid, and an old friend, a shy man but a conscientious craftsman, gets a spot in a writers' colony. No such luck for Browles--his fate resembles John Kennedy Toole's, without much prospect for posthumous vindication. But Fitger does struggle towards some kind of reconciliation with his exes, with his former colleagues in the workshop, and even gets voted chair of the department. Now, I have immediate and empirical cause to know that becoming chair of an English department is not the very happiest of endings, but Schumacher gives us at least a little dry, firm land after this often brinily hilarious march through Fitger's Slough of Despond.