After the workshop

Posted: June 26, 2010 in Book review, Creativity
Tags: ,

It’s been ages since I read an entire book in one day—until After the workshop came to my attention. That’s John McNally’s new novel about life after an MFA (in creative writing).

Some folks have the World Cup. Glued to their TV screens, they pump their fists in the air every time their team scores. For 24 hours, I had After the workshop. Immersed in its pages, I chortled every time McNally took down another deserving target—from clueless publicists to trendy but talentless novelists to literary groupies.

Great literature? No. (But I doubt it was intended to be.)

An engrossing read? Yes, with a fully imagined (and rendered) main character, who endears himself even as you suppress the desire to whomp him over the head.

Great fun? Absolutely!

The novel is a first-person account of media escort Jack Hercules Sheahan, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Jack, it’s safe to say, is a major fuck-up who lives hand-to-mouth in Iowa City, earning his keep (barely) by escorting visiting authors around town. After a few early successes, including publication in The New Yorker, he’s lost his way, with a half-finished novel tucked away under his bed (but not forgotten). Twelve years have passed since he graduated from the Workshop, but he still lives in the same apartment and drives the same old Toyota, which drops a muffler in the opening pages of the novel. And because Jack has just spent his last $200 on a breast pump for one of the authors he must escort—who skips town soon after—he has to spend the next few days at the mercy of the locals and the visiting literati, most of whom aren’t so friendly. The cast of characters includes that runaway author (creator of a hit novel entitled The outhouse); a big-city publicist; a romance writer; a reclusive author (think Salinger); a steroid-injecting weight lifter with a real poet’s soul; bloggers; pompous Workshop students; and so on.

At one point, I must admit, the cynical capitalist inside me stopped to calculate the potential market for such a book. I mean, MFA programs are a dime a dozen these days. By now, there must be thousands of people like me, graduate of one such program, who have failed to live up to expectations, however grandiose those hopes may have been. What the novel succeeds in demonstrating is that this “failure” may not be entirely their fault. And “success” takes many forms. It may be better, in the long run, to retain your humanity than to star on the New York Times bestseller list.

If you’ve ever marveled at the adulation heaped on writers of little literary heft, or rejoiced when one of them finally gets their comeuppance in a Michiko Kakutani review, this book is for you. Just make sure you have an extended interval in which to enjoy it. Once you start reading, you won’t want to put it down.

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