If you need a break from the noxious violence in the daily news and find yourself searching for a recuperative nighttime read about the loony haplessness that is the byproduct of a free and prosperous culture—well, you can do no better than to curl up with this ingeniously conceived, wickedly funny, and ultimately very moving epistolary novel.
It consists entirely of LORs (letters of recommendation) written by the curmudgeonly, almost-dead white male Jason Fitger, a tenured professor of creative writing and English at Payne University (“Teach ’til It Hurts”). Writing departments tend to be universities’ drainage pans, catching the lost, the unusual, the unadjusted, and, occasionally, the brilliant before they are washed out into the great sea of sink-or-swim. (Full disclosure: I spent eight years in MIT’s writing program.) For many of these students, Professor Fitger is the last port of call.
Fitger’s LORs, shot out in desperation toward such alien domains as The Paintball Emporium and Wexler Foods, are lifelines attempting to secure entry-level, part-time jobs and unpaid internships—or, when they are addressed to a university office, under-funded fellowships and adjunct lecturerships. Here is a letter to Kompu-Metricka:
Ms. Vanessa Cuddigan has asked me to submit a letter of reference to your poorly spelled organization. While I have only praise for Ms. Cuddigan, who graduated two years ago with a major in English, I had expected her to ask that I recommend her for graduate school. Instead, having completed a stint with Teach for America, she is now apparently desirous of some sort of data-entry position at your firm—clearly a soul-squelching enterprise. I have asked her to explain herself but she is evasive, leading me to wonder if something unfortunate happened during the two years to destroy her ambition.
Fitger’s two letters recommending (a) a psychopath and (b) a girl dissolved in tears to the mental health intervention team scrape the bottom of the barrel—and are so close to what we know to be true that it’s hard to remember these are satires. But Fitger also gets to see the top: the indefatigable Vivian, who applies to law school, medical school, Yaddo, and, finally, to Fitger’s own literary agent in an attempt to finagle a six-figure advance for her “coming-of-age story purportedly narrated by the first genetically engineered human-feline cross (specifically, a human/cheetah).”
The unflappable Tara, a plagiarist, shows up on January 7:
Ms. Tara Tappani knocked at my office door this morning, and, with the air of a woman wearing diamonds and furs, entered the icy enclosure in which I work, perched at the edge of my red vinyl chair, and urged me to respond to your second e-mail request for a recommendation, as she dearly hopes to be hired as assistant editor of Sellebritta Online. I demurred. Pressed, I reminded Ms. Tappani that a year ago I gave her a well-deserved F in my Intermediate Fiction class. She chuckled and put a mani-cured little paw on my forearm, as if the two of us were sharing a wonderful joke. “Don’t worry about that,” she assured me. “I just need a letter.”
The letters alone would be tremendous fun, because Schumacher’s social details are dead-on and her timing for punch lines is impeccable. But there is more. As the letters progress, Fitger’s biography comes into focus, exposing the ruthless egocentricity of a young writer on the make. He and several of the women to whom he must now write LORs on behalf of his students were once members of a fabled literary seminar whose leader—a cross between Lionel Trilling and F. R. Leavis—was a kingmaker because his brother was an editor at a New York publishing house. Young Fitger clawed his way to the top, and got his novel published. But his creative streak has petered out; he is divorced, abandoned, teaching Payne’s lost souls, and longing to get back together with his ex-wife.
When Dear Committee Members opens, we find Fitger installed in a drafty office next to the leaky men’s room, writing LORs that are honest to a fault, matching the flaws of the applicant to the flaws of the place requesting the LOR. The letters show, in their quirky way, Fitger’s deep understanding of human misery; they add up to his best work yet. Moved by the fates of two of his students, one young, one aging, Fitger composes ever more desperate letters to secure funding that would enable them to finish their respective novels.