An Underachiever’s Diary

“…I am, in all things, an underachiever, bound by nature to wrestle with the dull unanswerable and then give up, to the benefit of no one…”

A plain white cover with simply the Authors name, Benjamin Anastas, and the words An Underachiever’s Diary on it were so appealing, I bought the book without knowing anything about it. Benjamin Anastasi novella is not an awe-inspiring work of fictional literature, but it is an (deceptively) light, short, enjoyable read – particularly after having just read this behemoth. In fact there are times when the writing is excellent and the story bounces along hitting off of other literary works and social commentaries made by those such as Freud, Dostoevsky (particularly Notes From The Underground), and Thoreau. Anastasi ability to put both humor and humanity into most the sullen of characters can be attributed to his sound writing ability.

William, a self-proclaimed underachiever, gives the first person narration. William’s tale starts at his birth, which is significant because he was born seven minutes before his twin brother Clive, the last time he will ever be first at anything. Clive, is William’s antagonist and opposite. Clive is successful, charming, social skilled and an overachiever. The story continues through William’s childhood where he is slow to learn how to walk, talk, and get potty trained. Through his adolescence he is constantly in poor health with a long series of illnesses and injuries. His Jr. high years bring social awkwardness and the trials of sexual discovery both of which he is a miserable failure, but at this point in his life his begins to accept his calling as an underachiever. He puts himself into boarding school and soon finds himself at a “third rate” college in the Northeast. He spends five years lost in keg beer and failed relationships but he develops a philosophy along with a pride in being an underachiever. He soon relishes his ability to be unsuccessful and actually put himself in situations in order to fail. Eventually William comes to terms with his station in life and learns to cull faith and understanding from his flaws, a characteristic his “perfect” brother was never able to do. He acquires an ability to appreciate the broken and defective nature of humankind. The remainder of the novella that involves his adult life (failing at numerous jobs and eventually joining a cult) I found rather dull and a bit contrived. In addition the book ends somewhat flatly.

Anastas does a great job of describing Williams feelings. So much so that even the most successful will relate to him in some way. And as a thirty-year old myself (Williams age in the novella), I can help but look back on my life on occasion and wonder if I have achieved my potential. Anastas seems to be asking us to evaluate, or reevaluate what it means to be successful in life. All of us have a little underachiever in us somewhere. And I find myself a lot closer to William than Clive these days. Which is better, paltry happiness or sublime suffering?

We sat there in the moonlight for a while, listening to an artificial stream trickle across the fairway below us. My heart was full with her, but I lacked the means to express myself, other than the usual words, and tender actions, which seemed like inherited wisdom to me, universal LOVE, the failing panacea of my parents’ generation: flower children, baby boomers, whatever name you’d like to use. Exactly what had the sexual revolution gained them, after all? Some measure of bodily happiness, a sex instinct unfettered, the herpes virus, the social acceptability of T-shirts and cutoff shorts, but what else? Had they really changed our values and attitudes? And there I was, on a golf course at midnight with a girl I really liked, underachieving all over again in a misguided attempt to make it new, and pioneer a romantic avant-garde where nothing started, in the moonlight, would ever finish, and the greatest love, or kiss, would be the one that never grew beyond its promising beginning; that way no one would ever have to live with an imperfect lover’s guilt when things came to an end, as they do inevitably.

2 thoughts on “An Underachiever’s Diary”

  1. it’s a really short book Jules, you could probably read it in an evening on the floor of your local bookstore. i think you actually have to be a respected critic to write those blurbs, but if you know somebody….

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