Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Review: After the Workshop, by John McNally

After the Workshop, by John McNally 
Counterpoint Press
303 pages

"Most people fail to recognize the moment they've touched the ceiling of their potential, that point at which they've reached the height of their intellectual prowess or the summit of their popularity. It can happen anywhere, at any point in their life - away at college during a study session the night before a final, or on a high school football field while catching the game winning touchdown. For some poor souls it happens as early as grade school, often inconspicuously: surrounded by friends on the blacktop on the first day back to school, or saying something funny in class that makes even the teacher smile.  And then, after that, it's all downhill." (pg. 9)

So begins After the Workshop, a satirical and humorous (and often sad) look at the post-grad life of an Iowa Writers Workshop writer. (No matter that Jack Hercules Sheahan graduated a mere 12 years ago.) After publishing one short story ("The Self Adhesive Postage Stamp") in The New Yorker, Jack's novel-in-progress continues to collect dust while he works as a media escort for writers (mostly of the prima donna variety) visiting Iowa on their book tours.

Jack's encounters and interactions with these writers make up most of the action in this entertaining novel. (Many of them are well known, as McNally isn't afraid of name dropping in a good way. Others are fictitious - I think - which makes one wonder who they really are.  As I said in my Sunday Salon post, After the Workshop is like the "You're So Vain" of the literary world.)

Any book that mentions BEA (Book Expo America) and blogs within the first chapter - and the former on the first page - is a book that you know is one that knows its stuff about the writing life.  And McNally, who like his character Jack is also a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop and also once worked as a media escort to writers on their book tours, isn't afraid to give his reader a peek into this world that he knows very well.  In doing so, he shows us that it isn't as esteemed and glamorous as we might have originally thought.
Amid the bumblings and stumblings of Jack Sheahan's somewhat depressing existance as a wannabe writer escorting less-talented types around town,  the reader begins to understand the reasons behind Jack's self-doubt. Just like the frozen landscape of Iowa's prairie, Jack too remains frozen in time. 
"We were drunks and crazies, pissers and moaners. But my longing was both deeper and darker than a yearning for barracks. It was a desire to live in a time that I couldn't possibly live in, a wish to meet people at a time in their lives that had already come and gone, a need to be part of history in a way I could no longer be. I suffered from what C.S. Lewis called sehnsucht, an inconsolable longing in my heart for I knew not what. Sometimes, the sehnsucht's grip was too strong, and it was all I could do not to curl up in bed and remain there for weeks on end." (pg. 222-223).
I mentioned in my Sunday Salon post that I was almost scared to review this one because McNally, through Jack Sheahan, appears to be familiar with book blogs. He (the character of Sheahan) refers to leaving comments on blogs early on in the book (as well as being involved in a hostile exchange of opinions on one), as well as offering commentary on who exactly (in Jack's mind) actually writes blogs. 
"The younger writers - and even some not so young - maintained lengthy blogs about their writing lives. If a writer didn't have a blog, he or she was being blogged about, often viciously, usually by wannabe writers who wielded their blogs like swords. Part of the appeal of being a writer was the anonymity, but the Internet had pretty much ruined that. Almost always when I read blogs by young fiction writers whose work I admired, I ended up feeling embarrassed for the writer.  Frequently, they revealed too much personal information, or they felt compelled to share all of their opinions. There appeared to be no filter between what popped up into their heads and what showed up on their blogs, and I wanted to beg them to reconsider being so public, but instead of dropping emails to them, I simply never read their books again."  (pg. 233-234). 
Yikes.  I'm hoping that this is exclusively the view of Jack Hercules Sheahan, and not John McNally, but it's kind of hard to tell, isn't it? 
Regardless, I don't think John McNally needs to worry about my review because after all, I'm a nobody and I liked his book. Granted, it's not the best book I've read all year, but it is entertaining and a fast and funny read, in the dark humor appeal kind of way that made me enjoy The Financial Lives of the Poets and Then We Came to the End. If anything, I thought perhaps there were too many characters in After the Workshop and that at times, the narrative wandered a bit into the campy and farsical arenas.

But you know what?  Sometimes campy and farce isn't all bad. Sometimes it is exactly what we need.

What Others Thought:

Sasha and the Silverfish

John McNally's website is here

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Trisha said...

Campy and fare are most definitely necessary from time to time, and when done well can make a book very enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

This sounds good, for reading in a certain mood :)

Amy said...

This sounds kind of fun. I like that it mentions blogs and BEA! Interesting opinions in it though, you are right.