My travel companions got quite irritated with me – the guffaws, chuckles and giggles — the gasps of amused recognition.  Does one have to be a recovered academic to enjoy Dear Committee Members?

Well, I guess it has a particular resonance for those who can appreciate a line like this, in one of the endless letters of recommendation a professor is called upon to write:  “ I understand that Troy has applied for the position of sales associate.  This is a foreign concept to me:  here in the academy we are unaccustomed to salesmanship of any kind, even to the faintest of efforts to make ourselves presentable or attractive to others.”   It seems that everybody and their dog wants a letter of reference from poor beleaguered Jason Fitger, including a student who flunked his fiction writing course because she presented a well known story by Irwin Shaw as her own – a request which prompts him to comment, wryly, “It always startles me anew – though I have nabbed dozens of plagiarists – to realize that the student cheater is amazed at my powers of discernment, my uncanny ability to detect a difference in quality between his or her own work and, for example, Proust’s.”

I figure that anyone with a brain and sense of humour will enjoy this epistolary novel, in part because  the letter writer, a professor of English and Creative Writing at a nondescript Midwest university, is engaged in a very familiar struggle of trying to do the right thing despite his own foibles and in the face of truly monstrous opposition.  In short, amid the merriment, there’s a story unfolding of a mentorship which allows the narrator to grow up as a writer and as a department member. For all his crankiness, Fitger is a true believer:   he says, “As for me, the closest I have come to exaltation has been here at the university with a book in my hand. Literature has served me faithfully (no pun intended) as an ersatz religion, and I would wager that the pursuit of the ineffable via aesthetics in various forms has saved as many foundering souls as a belief in god.”  Amen to that, I say.