marginalia || After the Workshop, by John McNally

[A note: I’ve been sitting on this post for weeks—and, incidentally, taking the book with me to bed to obsess over sentences and scenes. This novel has fast become one of my favorite reads. Evahr. I shall squeal, and then elaborate. Because, man, I want everyone to read this book.]

After the Workshop by John McNally is one of this life’s little joys. It was fast-paced, a compulsive read–truth: stayed up all night reading it, even though I wasn’t supposed to on account of that flu (and my grandmother checked in on me once because I was laughing at ungodly hours). The language was clear, precise, and at times poignant. See, it’s funny, sarcastic, biting–but when you least expect it, it turns around and gives you an emotional whammy right in the gut. I love that: you’re minding your own business, thinking this will strictly be a laugh-out-loud book, and then you find yourself faltering, looking up from it, thinking about your own didn’t-quite-work-out-the-way-you-planned-it life. Huh. The novel shook me.

Our hero Jack Hercules Sheahan (yeah, real name) is a media escort–a literary escort to authors on book tours. Well, he’s a writer–though he finds even that term dubious: he used to be The Next Best Thing, or at least at the cusp of something awesome: then-fresh from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, published in The New Yorker and then included in The Best American Short Stories. And then, well, it went nowhere. A series of circumstances, a whole lot of self-doubt taken in stride, a life-whammy here and there, a naked neighbor, a lot of crazy writers later–and we join Jack, still in Iowa, in a quest to rediscover what he wants with his writing, and what the hell he can do to that novel that’s been, for years, in a box under his bed. So now he shuttles authors on tour around Iowa–authors he should’ve been, if only, if only. Oh, the pain.

It’s a fascinating study and an engaging satire of the publishing world, a nudge-nudge wink-wink kind of thing: its figures, its darlings, its icons, its peons. Some are archetypal, but there’s a pleasure in being privy into an inside joke–there’s a lot of play of images and roles, what reputations stand for, what success ultimately means, and all the other baggage that comes with being a writer. It’s the private space bleeding into the public–the same way Jack’s a novel-in-a-box writer who has to play nanny to more successful authors. The characters are well-written and complex and all shades between amusing and sad—yes, even the literary archetypes and those crazies. It’s a who’s who of figures, some laughable, some just sad. The assorted cast carry their own, and they manage to make us both laugh and go, Aww. You’re tempted to play a guessing game, and that did amuse me, but, ultimately, it’s about Jack.

I fell in love with Jack (and, yes, I know that sounds creepy). He’s unbelievably funny, with just the right dash of bitterness and self-deprecation. He’s woefully aware of his situation, but unaware as to what he should do about it. Dude’s life has been meandering through the alleys of Iowa, dodging obstacles, slipping into bars, pointedly avoiding his stalled novels. It’s like a modern-day quest–with poetry readings, bars, hospitals, bookstores, and characters weaving in and out of Jack’s madcap world (crazy mentor? alcoholic weight lifters? romance novelists?). There’s that serendipitous discovery about many things; there’s a slaying of dragons, to rid of a life entrenched in insecurities and ruts and inertia. Basically, just living a life again.

That’s what hit me with this book. I was laughing hysterically, and then I had to stop because the poignancy just overtook me. Yes, McNally is making fun of the publishing world and all its facades–but it’s Jack’s life we watch for, inevitable examinations of what a damned thing writing is, why we’re bogged down by expectations we fail to live up to.

Early on in its all-nighter reading, the novel easily became a very personal book. Aside from the fact that I was liking it exponentially with every turn of the page—from merely looking at that gorgeous cover to its sigh-worthy end—the book was a chillingly familiar read. I cringed at the parallelisms I found in my life, in my own doubts about this stupid little thing called writing (I was, at 17, part of a workshop years ago, have been in school for the longest time trying to get my Creative Writing degree, and I haven’t written anything in so long, it’s laughable. Of course, this isn’t in the scale of Jack’s experiences, but damn it, the fear and self-doubt must resemble? [Sorry for the autobiographical diarrhea.]) Am I whining? Is Jack Sheahan whining? See what I did there? Anyway, it mattered so much to me because I recognized it: it was equal parts thought-provoking and horror story. I recognized people here, and in some very haunting cases (usually right after I’ve laughed like a madwoman), I recognized myself.

McNally’s novel had me scrambling to face my notebook. And, hell, this book even makes fun of Moleskines. Beyond the pure awesomeness of this book, beyond being grateful that he wrote a book that made for a great reading experience–I’d like to thank John McNally for writing this book because it’s stirred things in me. By verbalizing ideas and actualities few people would dare touch–and with such wit–After the Workshop struck a chord. If the author believed in The Possible Reader–well, hello, I’m the perfect one. Admit it, you wrote this for me. :| Har.

I was trying to tell a friend how awesome this book was and he said, “So it’s a writer’s book?” And I grinned and nodded. He grinned back. He gets me. Being “a writer’s book” is not a bad thing, hell it’s a fantastic thing IMO. Will this alienate non-writers/non-MFAers? I don’t know. But it shouldn’t. See, After the Workshop is, above all, a novel of heart. One way to look at it is that it’s an index of literary inside jokes–that’s fine and all fun, but this is so much more. Another way is to regard this as ruminations on the writing life–and isn’t there such a danger for the whole thing to appear narcissistic and masturbatory?–and yes, it is about the writing life (hell, life in general): our failures, what we may think of as failures, how we release ourselves from the weight of our own expectations, how we sway ourselves into a life of inertia. And all that jazz.

I love this book, okay? It was difficult to talk about it. It’s often difficult to talk about the things that matter more, me thinks. Even now I feel like I didn’t do this book justice–or worse, I didn’t do my experience of it justice.

Bah. Haha. Excuse me, but I’m off to pimp out this book. Never mind that, by this blog post’s end, I’m all out of synonyms for awesome.

22 thoughts on “marginalia || After the Workshop, by John McNally

  1. I love how shaken you are by this book. The novel sounds fantastic, and it’s your response to it that’s had me write the title down. I’ll be looking for this over the weekend. I’m sure the novel will be as amazing as you had shared with us.

    And no, I’m not a writer. (Just love reading good books!) So I guess that’s the answer to that alienation thing? :-)

    1. Thanks so much, Piper, for valuing my opinion [unashamed gushing!] so much, haha. I really hope you like this. As you’ve pointed out, this has become such an awesome experience. I’m a fangirly ninny.

      1. I came back to tell you that I bought a copy of this one and read it and I loved it so much. I’m kinda grateful that you’re here to give a coherent reason why, it’s just so hard for me to explain to friends why this book was just so good.

        BTW, I wasn’t alienated! :-)

  2. My fellow bookseller (@justbooks) absolutely loved this book also and it is now very near the top of my teetering TBR pile. I can’t wait! Good review.

    1. Thank you, Sue. And when you’ve plucked McNally from The Teetering TBR [that’ll make a great name for a band, haha], I hope you enjoy it as much as Margie and I do. :)

  3. Well, I was hopeful when I saw the cover in combination with your preliminary gush. And then you cinched the deal with ‘Evahr’. I’m now on the library queue and, if I am half as enthralled as you, I’ll be buying my own copy shortly afterwards…

    1. I love that cover so much–so simple, so quirky. The theme gets carried on inside the book as well. Also, Evahr should get everyone’s vote. ;p I hope you enjoy this book. :]

  4. Sounds like a fabulous book. You should link to the Literary Lusts meme hosted by With Extra Pulp. (I can’t post a link in the comment box for some reason, technological ineptitude most likely.)

  5. Sasha,

    This had not been on my radar, but now I want it. It goes on the TBR. Thanks for a great review. Your post was an engaging call to action. McNally owes you an autographed copy, at least.

    I look forward to this one.

    1. Hi, Kerry. Thank you for trusting my “engaging call to action”–and calling it that. :) This one really rocked my world, and I hope you like it when you read it. :)


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