'An Underachiever's Diary' -- A Story for Our Times


By Stephen Lowman

"In this economy we are all underachievers," author Benjamin Anastas told me last week. "Maybe donning a big blue U and advertising your faults to the world is a good way to get through it."

This summer Anastas's novel "An Underachiever's Diary" was reissued by Dial Press. It's about William, who after beating his identical twin brother Clive out of the womb, proceeds to lose in every other aspect of his life. He is sickly as a child, attends a mediocre state school for college, dates a cheating alcoholic who can barely recall his name, and somehow winds up joining a cult. He may be a failure, but he's an endearing one.


A recent grad ponders what to do with her journalism degree. (Photo: Benjamin Anastas)

The book was originally published a decade ago during more prosperous economic conditions. Anastas thinks his novella about a guy who is "proud to be an underachiever" will resonate with an audience living through The Great Recession.

"My hope is that, with failure in all of its guises more of a certainty than ever before -- at least in my lifetime -- a new audience can take some pleasure in William's plight. He used to be a run-of-the-mill crank, but now he speaks for us all.'

The book's redesigned cover features a large blue italicized letter U - of course, for underachiever. On the companion website, anunderachieversdiary.com, there are photos of down-on-their-luck folk sporting a necklace ornamented by the letter. It's a visual riff on Hester Prynne, the difference being these individuals are embracing their lowly status.

"I had a metal shop in Brooklyn make up a version of the U in steel. I thought it would be fun to take a couple pictures of friends and come up with captions; every time we did a shoot people would come out of the woodwork and claim to be underachievers too," Anastas said.

So, for instance, one caption reads "E -- has big plans, but her job keeps getting in the way." Another shows a woman dressed in cap and grown -- and clearly in a state of despair -- because she "doesn't know what to do with her degree from journalism school."

Anastas is in the midst of creating an itinerary for the necklace. Across the country one proud underachiever will send it to another. Photos will be posted to Anastas's website so readers can commiserate, and celebrate, in their shared failure.


By Steven E. Levingston |  September 4, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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