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After the Workshop: A Memoir of Jack…
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After the Workshop: A Memoir of Jack Hercules Sheahan

by John McNally

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I am the custom-made audience for this book. MFA from Columbia. Stuck on a novel. Worked with insufferable publicists. Familiar with the drudgery and lack of respect media escorts get. Primed to laugh at self-conscious, pretentious literary types, writers with undeserved success, the obsessive quest for literary agents. Everything about this book was utterly familiar, and yet I found no joy in reading it. Perhaps I was too familiar. But there was absolutely zero nuance in any of the characters. All of them were stock. The narrator was intensely unlikable. I literally found nothing redeeming in him, even up to the end. The only well-drawn character was the reclusive older writer. I'm almost gutted by my level of disappointment with this book. It's crucial that even the antagonists have one redeeming characteristic for them to be fully human. And the amount of coincidental encounters make this book seem like the setting was a 8x8 foot room, not a medium-sized city, like Iowa City. Also, the thread with Alice, his former fiancee, is not resolved. The way the narrator encounters her for the last time in the book is outright unbelievable. I simply could not suspend disbelief for a book in which, in my case anyway, suspension of disbelief should not even have been necessary. Maybe all the four-star reviews here have to do with the delight we writers take in trying to parse out to which obnoxious writer-of-the-moment this or that pseudonym refers. I also could not believe that his treatment of poets actually evoked compassion in me, rather than laughter. Having gone to school at Columbia University's School of the Arts I am, again, the perfect audience to laugh heartily at the earnestness of poets. But his characterization rang false because it was so exaggerated at every turn. I mean, including a scene in which Naropa students go head to head with Iowa MFA'ers is like shooting fish in a barrel. Too easy, too predictable (down to the poet with the "Janis Joplin hair" and the poet named "Dusty Rhodes" and the unexpected poet located among Iowa City's laboring classes). The only thing I connected with in this book was his treatment of what it feels like to fail.

Damn. I wanted this to be so much better. I just didn't like the writing and I didn't think the farce-like nature of the book held up, even as meta-fiction. I feel that, as a writer, you have to tread that line carefully, where it's just absurd enough to keep the reader engaged, but not so unbelievable that the writer loses faith and begins to feel as if the writer is insulting her intelligence. That's where I was for almost the entire book. Boo. ( )
  bookofmoons | Sep 1, 2016 |
"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.
( )
  bettyandboo | Apr 2, 2013 |
The Iowa Writers' Workshop has one of the most prestigious MFA programs in the country. Many famous authors - John Irving, Jane Hamilton, Flannery O'Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, and many more - have attended or taught at the Workshop. But what happens to the graduates who aren't so successful. John McNally's novel explores the path taken by one fictional graduate, Jack Hercules Sheahan. Sheahan publishes a story in the New Yorker while a student, but halfway through his novel, his writing flounders. To make ends meet, he takes a job as a media escort for authors visiting Iowa City.

McNally writes with a dry humor that I quite enjoyed. The story is grounded in reality (McNally himself is an Iowa Writers' Workshop grad and a former media escort), so the reader is left wondering just how many liberties McNally has taken as he pokes fun at MFA programs, writers, the publishing industry, and even Iowa City itself. I especially enjoyed this book because I teach at the University of Iowa, so I could nod knowing as McNally poked fun at Iowa winters and at the bars and other Iowa City institutions that feature prominently in the story. A quick witty read! ( )
  porch_reader | Jun 27, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 158243560X, Paperback)

You graduate from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with a short story published in The New Yorker and subsequently Best American Short Stories. You stay in town and work on your novel. And work on your novel. Until, finally, twelve years have passed and you are working as a media escort for author tours and your unfinished novel sits in a box under your bed. Your girlfriend has left you. Your car is missing a muffler. Your neighbor is walking around naked because his hands are bandaged and he can’t unzip his pants. You are at the whims of a slew of increasingly crazy writers, and when one of them disappears, an insane New York publicist begins stalking you. This is the life of Jack Hercules Sheahan, a character well understood by author John McNally. He is also a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as well as a former media escort, and these misadventures are brought to life by his very own. Recalling the ease and humor of novels by Nick Hornby and Michael Chabon, After the Workshop tells the satirical story of a writer who confronts the demons from his past while escorting those of his present.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:27 -0400)

The satirical story of a writer who confronts the demons from his past while escorting those of his present.

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