Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: Fight For Your Long Day by Alex Kudera

"Adjunct" Cyrus Duffman, humble protagonist of Fight For Your Long Day, is a nearly 40 year old instructor of English at four fictional colleges in Philadelphia.  We follow him through a day of superficial encounters, painful longings, and existential pain. Through Cyrus, Kudera unveils the maddening absurdities of American higher education and the depressing rhetoric of the "war on terror." Kudera's debut novel successfully pulls no punches on some harsh truths on the economic realities of 21st century America.

"Duffy" is a well meaning teacher trapped in a state of terminal malaise. Part-time instructors are the on the bottom rung of the academic pecking order: low pay, labyrinth commutes, no benefits, nor any chance of promotion.  Early on in the novel, Cyrus teaches a "Business Writing" class at an urban community college with a classroom of diverse students. They range from a well read Afro-Centrist, young white males donning baseball caps who carry thinly veiled contempt for minority students, studious female pupils preoccupied with getting the "A", and a few iconoclasts spewing sophomoric political slogans bastardized from another decade. Readings in Freshman Comp classes tend towards provocative arguments on race, gender, politics, and sexuality. Designed to encourage discussion, they usually have the opposite effect of either indifferent reactions or incitements to Jerry Springer theatrics.  The class devolves into a farce when a discussion on Maslov's pyramid of needs takes a political turn.  A student walks in late and sets a picture of the president on fire and chaos ensues.  Hence his dilemma: students see him as a flunky of the establishment while to those above him he's a non-entity.

Kudera's hard on his protagonist. Much is made of his weight problem, bathroom habits, and recurring moments of lust for his female students.  Plagued by financial problems, Duffy stays complacent about his situation. But that's the newer, braver "corporate" university of cost cutting and outsourcing. Tenured professors get the perks and usually have lighter teaching loads and higher salaries. They teach courses centered around their personal tastes, while the adjuncts face a future of teaching basic composition year after year, decade by decade. In the novel, the CEO presidents of the colleges decide to cut all humanities courses because they are no longer profitable.  Duffy feels, but is unable to express, his outrage at the oligarchical system that makes pawns of the best and the brightest.

Sharp political satire perfectly captures the polarized politics of Bush v. Gore America. The political situation has devolved into a "Which Side Are You On?" atmosphere of liberal and conservative. Those on the right are reduced to simplistic war mongers ready to send out the drones and drop fire on the evildoers at the drop of a hat, while liberals read the NY Times consumed with white guilt and sympathize with terrorists while gulping espresso shots in their coffee shop as Belle & Sebastian play in the background.  The murky politics of the Bush era are captured dead on.  Duffy, a sort of liberal, impotently makes his points, proving no match for the ideologues and hyper-capitalists.

A dubious scholar of Kafka, Duffy witnesses his own life take Kafkaesque turns as he experiences humiliations of several varieties throughout his "long" day. As a character, he's a great lens from which to view modern America, as the adjunct's dilemma is indicative of the new economy and the passivity it fosters among the populace.  Duffy lets people walk over him and he shows no initiative to change his situation.  Like any effective novel about the injustice of a system such as The Jungle, Fight For Your Long Day succeeds as a call to action- for all those suffering in the lower echelons of higher ed.

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