John McNally's introduction to The Student Body acknowledges a formidable obstacle to the book's success--the expectation that short stories about college professors and their students may be "elitist," appealing only to a very specific audience. This quirky collection of stories, however, is decidedly, if unexpectedly, compelling. McNally, an assistant professor of English at Wake Forest University, provides a diverse cross-section of styles, moods and settings, so that these 17 stories exhibit a broad range of human experiences, as well as a refreshing sensitivity to both the truths and mythologies of their academic milieu. While it does offer a certain amount of insider humor (and pathos guaranteed to strike the most familiar chords with English Department readers), the collection includes stories that generally pass the test of being accessible to learners of many kinds.
Few settings are more apt to demonstrate the gulf between the way people appear to others, and the realities of their personal lives and psyches, than the hallowed halls of academia. All the trappings are here, as the authors touch on the hot politics of tenure, the sagging academic job market, forbidden romance, publishing, graduate student life, innovative teaching ideas, the Greek system, the divide between community colleges and universities, and affirmative action. Yet with few exceptions, their stories transcend the specific milieu to unmask the parents, children, lovers and friends who are filling the professional and student roles defined by the academic world.
Part One of The Student Body promises to portray "The Students," and Part Two "The Faculty," but loneliness, need, love and fear are found on both sides of the mirror. If there is a theme common to all these stories, whether they are satires, tragedies or thrillers, it's the difficulty of making real human connections. In the world of The Student Body, students silently long for personal recognition from their peers or professors, and all the while, professors walk with poker faces in front of their classes, hiding their own needs and dreams behind professional, impersonal facades. These stories are about loneliness and searching, the need for enrichment through connection to the collective body, and what can be learned from that connection. Beneath the rigid formal surface of the university and all its stereotypes swirls a hotbed of humane and needy spirits.
Gordon Weaver's "Q: Questing" follows the week's activity of a Vietnam veteran turned English teacher, who flies down the freeways day to day between four part-time teaching jobs and four girlfriends at different small colleges. Though the teacher imagines himself moving sometimes away from things and sometimes toward something, in fact his quest seems primarily to be motion; if he keeps moving, he prevents himself from realizing that, in terms of emotional intimacy and growth, he lives in stasis. The fight against emotional stasis, and the loss of identity to the professional roles they shoulder, seems to be a quest common to many of the instructors in these stories.
While some readers may object on principle to the stereotypical portrait of the English or history professor as a disheveled and lovelorn eccentric sustained primarily by an imaginative inner life, some of the best of these stories show their protagonists achingly aware of the stereotype and playing with the image, at times humorously and other times quite the opposite. Stories like Ron Carlson's "Hartwell," Sondra Spatt Olsen's "Free Writing," and Marly Swick's "The Rhythm of Disintegration"--three of the real showpieces of the anthology--all turn on their main characters' awareness of the difference between the way they understand themselves and the way they are understood by their peers and students.
The jaded narrator of "Hartwell," who watches an absentminded colleague blossom under the romantic attentions of a co-ed, finds himself caught up vicariously in the affair and given pleasure and youthfulness by the way it seems both to be playing into a stereotype and holding out the hope of escape from the dreary, expected role he has become resigned to filling. Olsen's lonely teacher also discovers reason for both personal and professional hope in a new student, a discovery that forces her to see herself and another colleague whom she has never understood in an unexpected, less impersonal way than in the past.
The ironic, frustrated narrator of Swick's story--angry at a world wherein he can barely afford books while his ex-wife's non-reading, bourgeois new husband "can afford to stock up on hardbacks as if they were so many cans of soup"--will delight, intrigue and deeply move those who love books and value learning. Marshall is a history professor trying to make an emotional connection with an ex-wife that will in some way validate his sense that life, like his studies, "is a process of accumulation, not substitution," and that losses are worthwhile if remembered. Part of his inability to connect stems from a conflicted sense of identity: "Some days Marshall thinks becoming a professor was the most boorish choice he has ever made; other days it strikes him as a wonderful scam to get paid to monopolize the conversation. ... "
A smart, funny, slightly ridiculous, but finally sympathetic narrator, Marshall is trying, like others in McNally's collection, to condense the roles he plays into a single, acceptable entity that will make his life seem meaningful and cogent. A disjointed sense of one's identity and how it intersects with one's roles characterizes the experiences of the students in the other half of the book as well.
Joe Schraufnagel's "Like Whiskey for Christmas" and Rebecca Lee's "The Banks of the Vistula" both turn on students' struggles with their own identities and desires in the face of the powerful projection of the expectations of an outside authority. In Richard Russo's "The Whore's Child," Dan Chaon's "Fraternity," and Thomas Beller's "A Different Kind of Imperfection," people are faced with seeing and understanding the world differently in the wake of their changing perceptions of self prompted by the witting or unwitting intervention of the views of others.
Sister Ursula, of Russo's story, writes an autobiography that, instead of revealing her life to others, allows others to explain the great mystery of her life to her. Hap, the fraternity president in "Fraternity," sees accusation in the eyes of everyone he knows after an accident where he was driving destroys the life of his best friend. He struggles against the sense that everything is changed forever for him by working extra hard to maintain a carefree image. In Beller's story, a young man's reading of his late father's copy of To the Lighthouse helps him come to terms with the loss of his father, but also to begin the process of growing up and seeing his mother as an individual, rather than only in her prescribed maternal role.
Readers will be delighted by the potpourri of perspectives and styles McNally has compiled in The Student Body. While the characters are variously liberated, confined, frustrated and fulfilled by their mirror roles as learners and instructors, they exist in stories that run the gamut from a thriller, like Stephen King's classically creepy, but lovingly descriptive "Strawberry Spring"; to Amy Knox Brown's whimsical, but resonant coming-of-age story in "Strip Battleship"; to the experimental satire of Tom Whalen's "Professors," where the speaker goes from one office to another, fleeing the seductive advances of professors whose persons are conflated with their disciplines. It's difficult to imagine a teacher or student who would not find himself at times intimately understood and at other times grossly parodied in these pages--but always with an inviting good humor and compassion. The Student Body successfully navigates between the need for accuracy in setting and the charge of idiosyncrasy or elitism. Taken as a whole, readers will find this anthology to be chastening and heartwarming, but always thought-provoking.