Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Review published on March 19, 2015.Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

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Jason Fitger is a middle-aged professor of English and creative writing at Payne University, a middling liberal arts college somewhere in the American Midwest. That was a lot of “mids” for one sentence. Rest assured, though: there is nothing average about Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher’s second novel. Told entirely through the irascible Fitger’s letters of recommendation for his colleagues and students, it is a delightful epistolary novel.

Professor Fitger has a back catalogue of over 1,300 LORs (as he calls them for short). He’s a pro at supporting former students in all manner of next steps, some of them relevant to an English degree – graduate programs, academic positions and writers’ retreats – but most dispiritingly menial. Schumacher is realistic as well as satirical in having so many Payne alumni resort to desperate-sounding work in childcare, catering and paintball.

For the most part, Fitger writes out of obligation. He can hardly remember some students, but thanks to his extensive records he can unearth the necessary details of which courses he taught them and what grades they received. Still, sometimes he can only summon up the faintest praise for a referee: “He can read and write; he’s not unsightly; and he doesn’t appear to be addicted to illegal substances prior to 3:00 p.m.,” he sums up one work-study applicant.

It’s a different story with Darren Browles, however. Fitger truly believes in Browles, and desperately tries to advocate for him. He often laments that all the creative writing projects he encounters are pure gore and vampires, but Browles’s was fresh: an update of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, set in a Las Vegas brothel. Alas, Accountant in a Bordello doesn’t capture the attention of any of the publishers and writing residency directors Fitger tries to convince of his protégé’s brilliance, and Browles slips deeper into penury and despair.

Does Fitger see Browles as a version of his younger self, or as the son he never had? Fitger himself is a has-been novelist, so perhaps he longs to share in some vicarious success. Browles is the novel’s one bittersweet element. Most other failures are played for laughs, including Fitger’s broken marriage to Janet Matthias, who now works in the law school’s admissions office. They still meet up for dinner on the anniversary of their divorce. Likewise, Fitger maintains mostly cordial relations with Carole, an ex-girlfriend also on the Payne staff.

These letters are dated between September 2009 and August 2010, so readers see a full academic cycle on display. It is impressive how much Schumacher manages to slot in between the lines of these LORs: Fitger’s alarm at the English building crumbling around him, his jealousy of the better-funded Economics department, his technophobia (he detests filling out electronic recommendation forms) and the contentious search for a new department chair, as well as his general sense of being superseded.

It’s a short, spirited book, and Fitger’s barbed comments and garrulousness (as he quotes from Pascal: “I apologize that my letter is so long; I lacked the time to make it shorter”) will keep you laughing. Schumacher herself teaches English and creative writing for the University of Minnesota, which accounts for the sly, knowing look at academia. English graduates and teachers in particular will get a kick out of the subject matter, but I daresay anyone who has ever been fed up with bureaucracy at work will sympathize with Fitger. He’s not just the “cantankerous pariah” he thinks his colleagues must deem him; he’s a sort of Everyman, shaking his fist at favouritism and unfairness. Particularly recommended for fans of Frances and Bernard, The Good Luck of Right Now or Lucky Jim.

Rebecca Foster

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