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Likely Stories: You Deserve Nothing

Jim McKeown
You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

I’m Intense adult tale of a popular instructor at the International School in Paris.


Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

My wife has been after me to read You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik for some time.  Finally, I gave in and started to read.  The main character, William Silver, teaches at the International School in Paris.  His techniques, methods of questioning, assignments, readings, and discussions eerily mirror what I do in my classroom.

Maksik received teaching and writing fellowships from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  Currently, he holds the Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellow position at the University of Iowa.  You Deserve Nothing is his first novel – and what an intense and deeply psychological read it proved to be.

William teaches literature and composition.  The novel centers on a Senior Seminar at the prestigious high school populated mostly by the children of American diplomats and businessmen and women.  Besides William, two other characters narrate the story in separate chapters – Marie, listed as 24-years-old, and Gilad, a 24-year-old man.  I found these ages curious, because the ISP is a high school.  William Silver is 38.  Other interesting characters include Arial, a stunningly beautiful young woman in Silver’s seminar, and Colin, an Irish lad with a temper.

The parts of the novel -- from the viewpoint of the students -- detail all the anxieties, fears, hopes, dreams, and problems expected of adolescents.  In his chapters, William reflects on his job, his attitude toward other faculty, and a possibly enticing relationship with Mia, another faculty member.  Silver has a public personae, which the students adore, but his private life is another matter.  He holds his students to high standards, which he himself cannot attain.

The prose flows leisurely.  Maksik writes, “The optimism, the sense of possibility and hope comes at the end of August.  There are new pens, unmarked novels, fresh textbooks, and promises of a better year.  The season of reflection is not January but June.  Another year passed, the students gone, the halls silent.  You’re left there alone.  The quiet of a school emptied for the summer is that of a hotel closed for the winter, a library closed for the night, ghosts swirling through the room” (19).  Literature thrives and revolves around connections.  I have experienced nearly 30 of these Augusts and Junes.  I have had students closely resembling Marie, Ariel, Gilad, Colin, Abdul, Hala, and others.  I have had colleagues chillingly close to Mia, who seems to be interested in William.  Students and faculty alike imagine William and Mia together.

For language and an explicit scene, this provocative adult novel forces the reader to deal with the characters and their actions and then decide who makes good decisions and who makes decisions which alter the course of several lives.  I especially enjoy novels about teachers, professors, and students.  Along with Straght Man by Richard Russo and Blue Angel by Francine Prose, You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik belongs among the best of this sub-genre.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.