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The Undereducation of an Overachiever

by Walter Kirn

Pub Date: May 19th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-385-52128-4
Publisher: Doubleday

Slapdash memoir from Time and GQ contributing editor Kirn (The Unbinding, 2007, etc.).

From the moment he aced the SAT at his rural Minnesota high school (he doesn’t reveal his score), the author’s fate, like those of his fellow overachievers, was sealed. “I have…comrades in estrangement,” he writes, “way out here on the bell curve’s leading edge, where our talent for multiple-choice tests has landed us without even the vaguest survival instructions.” Kirn aims to burst the pretensions of the American ideal of meritocracy—astutely analyzed in Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test (1999)—but the narrative is too narrowly focused on the author’s personal ascent through the ranks, from elementary school through Princeton and Oxford. Many of his experiences—the desire to leave Middle America and reinvent himself as a respected intellectual; his rage against affluent roommates who expected him to cough up a percentage of the expense of buying high-end furniture; his humiliation after being savaged by jealous, less-talented students in a writing workshop; his cocaine-and-sex binge with the daughter of a wealthy art dealer—make for evocative, entertaining reading, but it’s unclear how they advance his argument against the meritocracy. Kirn’s strengths are honesty and humor. He admits that he, like many who attend Princeton and other Ivy League schools, was a social climber driven by the desire be a part of the East Coast Elites, not by a hunger for knowledge. He says he faked his way through college, and that enlightenment came after a mental breakdown. Kirn also uses his considerable powers as a novelist to paint vivid scenes of comic debauchery. Some of the drunken, drug-addled escapades are reminiscent of The Ginger Man, but J.P. Donleavy wisely avoided the temptation to cast his antihero’s drunken recklessness as a metaphor.

Ill-suited for a book-length work, Kirn’s premise found more effective expression as a feature in The Atlantic.