After the Workshop by John McNally
A visiting writer once told our workshop, “Never write about writers.” It sounded true in the way categorical statements do to students of writing, ever in search of the hard and fast rule. “You wouldn’t take a picture of a camera,” he explained. “And besides that, we’re boring.”
Many writers have led interesting lives -- Christopher Marlowe, Jack London, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn come to mind -- and writers from Don Delillo to John Irving to Jack London himself, in his often overlooked masterpiece Martin Eden, have made compelling subjects out of writers. Even so, writing is a solitary act, more toil than adventure, and though the label of writer still commands a high cool quotient in many quarters, there is a reason studio chiefs gravitate more to doctors and lawyers, cops and robbers.
If there is one hard and fast rule about novels on which we can all agree, it’s that what happens is far more important than whom it happens to, and with his first two novels, The Book of Ralph and America’s Report Card, John McNally established himself as a writer who can unspool a story with the best of them. His third novel, After the Workshop, features another cast of humorous characters, the same perceptive prose, and a likeable, relatable protagonist. But for reasons at least partly stemming from the hero’s vocation as a writer, After the Workshop feels more like a step backward than forward.
Jack Hercules Sheahan’s celebrity, “small and dismal as it was,” began and ended with the publication of his short story, “The Self-Adhesive Postage Stamp,” in the pages of The New Yorker, and later Best American Short Stories. Years removed from his time at the revered Iowa Writer’s Workshop and that lone publishing credit, Jack’s self-doubt has left him unable to finish a novel, and he’s no longer convinced his admission to the Workshop wasn’t the result of the outgoing director letting in some of the worst applicants “to screw with the incoming director.” Jack is blocked in more ways than one, barely making ends meet as a media escort to visiting writers in the same Iowa town where his writing career might have peaked as a graduate student, and it isn’t long into the novel when Jack bumps into Alice, the ex-fiancee from “an earlier life, back when I could have said what it was I did,” from whom he has never moved on.
In a few days, a series of events conspire to free Jack from his holding pattern. The first is the arrival of Vanessa Roberts, author of the “quasi-literary novel, mostly ones about child abuse,” in town to promote her memoir, The Outhouse, about the time she and her brother fondled each other while visiting a relative’s house without indoor plumbing. Like most of the authors who pass through the novel, Vanessa Roberts is a recognizable type, and part of the fun is guessing whom exactly McNally is skewering. Not long after Jack agrees to fetch Roberts a breast pump for the infant she has brought with her on tour, the author vanishes from her hotel, sending her publicist into a panic.
Enter the irascible Lauren Castle, whose book career began in a warehouse filled with remainders of Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life. If the mention of that underperforming relic makes you laugh, you’ll thoroughly enjoy After the Workshop, brimming with satirical insights about the publishing world, creative writing programs, and the pretentious behavior of writers. I lost count of how many times I chuckled and smiled, but many of the punchlines are directed at easy targets, and my amusement was accompanied, if not aided, by the self-congratulation of having gotten an inside joke. Readers without MFAs or who don’t faithfully peruse the Times Book Review might have to squint to see the humor.
By the time Lauren Castle arrives in Iowa City, to track down the AWOL memoirist, a pair of successful writers in Vince Belecheck and Tate Rinehart, a macho asshole and black-shirt-wearing contributor to The New Yorker, respectively, have joined the proceedings to make Jack feel bad about his stalled writing career. But another writer, S.S. Pitzer -- McNally has the best character names in contemporary letters -- is much more encouraging. Years earlier, when Jack and Alice were still engaged, S.S. Pitzer read Jack’s unfinished novel and announced, “This is going to put you on the map in a big way.” Pitzer, as it turns out, has also gone AWOL, an epidemic among writers, it seems, and his inability to follow up a bestseller called Winter’s Ghost has led him to Jack for reasons that eventually become clear. Pitzer, Belecheck, Rinehart, and even Castle serve a purpose to the story, and McNally is talented enough and funny enough to redeem digressions and slower moments. It’s hard to quibble with what’s on the page, as they say in workshop. The problem is what’s missing.
Jack Sheahan is an amiable fellow, someone with whom you’d be glad to share a few beers and ascerbic comments about writers. But whenever we start to know him a little better, a little more deeply, Jack pulls away -- or rather, McNally does -- and we’re back on the quest to find Vanessa Roberts, or contemplate the unfinished novel, or tend to a handful of slightly contrived moments, like the cut S.S. Pitzer receives on his hand when he slaps a street sign. A narrative strand that holds the key to the deeper parts of Jack Sheahan involves Alice, who pops up several times, but their past is never explored. What made her the love of his life? In what ways did they connect? These questions are never answered.
One of the novel's most moving scenes is a flashback to Jack’s childhood. During a family vacation, while his mother showers in the hotel bathroom, young Jack writes his first short story on the steam-covered windows. Drawing the curtains over his work, Jack can’t wait to show his mother, but when she emerges from the bathroom and he unveils his work, more steam has covered every word. Our heart breaks for his modest loss, as it does in other flashbacks to Jack’s time spent with his mentor, the late Gordon Grimes, who might be the only reason Jack’s writing got him as far as it did. And there are tender moments between Jack and S.S. Pitzer, but the stakes of Jack’s crisis feel too small to resonate. His inability to finish things, Alice eventually tells him, was the reason she left, and certainly this makes sense. But Alice, as well as Jack’s inner life, are painted in such broad strokes that the reader’s reaction is superficial.
Some novels about writers, like Irving’s The World According to Garp and Delillo’s Mao II, merely place a writer at the center of a larger, cultural story. Others, like London’s Martin Eden and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, treat writing as central to a character’s identity, a metaphor for how they interact with the world. In the former, Martin Eden devours literature like a starved man, writing to prove himself to doubters. In Wonder Boys, Grady Tripp experiences the opposite of writer’s block, unable to stop writing, as indecisive as he is in his personal life. If there is a larger context to the story of Jack Sheahan, it is McNally’s commentary on the state of the publishing industry, the obsession with memoir and literary trends, much of which is amusing, but of less interest to the average reader. Ultimately, After the Workshop has to succeed on the level of the character, the personal rather than the political, though McNally’s prior novels suggest he is capable of either. Jack Sheahan’s stagnant writing life reflects where he is, and has been, for so many years after graduate school, but the reader is kept at arm’s length, as if Jack is unwilling or unable to truly express who he is. One suspects he simply doesn’t know, and the ending finds Jack writing again, perhaps on his way to finding out.
After the Workshop by John McNally