While Alex Kudera’s novel, Fight for Your Long Day, highlights the grave socio-economic injustices of a corrupt academic system, it is much more than a preachy manifesto. Cyrus Duffelman’s struggles are that of any of the economically repressed. But when college professors earn Walmart wages, it highlights a shocking disconnect between the hollow political rhetoric of the importance of education, and the true reality. Cyrus inhabits a world of increasing impoverishment. This is the landscape of essayist and cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. This is the time perhaps when we should be re-reading Steinbeck and Orwell.
It would be a cliché to call him a modern day Everyman. Cyrus is a real person with frailties and insecurities, yet with conviction and seriousness about what he does. His long day is his total reality. The past has not served him, so what can the future hold? He does represent a growing class of academic paupers in particular and the growing dominance of menial wages everywhere in America in general, whether the work is menial or not.
And, yet, it’s not little enough. Menial wages, that is. Another sad irony is that the adjunct is no lifetime indentured servant, but rather an endangered species as institutions of higher learning contemplate “satellite hookups and TVs in every classroom…with the finest Indian universities teaching virtual classes long-distance…The fifteen grand a year they were paying the graduate student [or adjunct] has become fifteen hundred for a hungrier South Asian.”
Cyrus is doubly invisible. No one “sees” him—just as the adjunct inequity is on no one’s radar—and because Cyrus wields no power or status, he hopes not to be seen. Even when he commits an error in judgment, there “is no one to beg forgiveness, so all he can do is correct himself.”
He continues on not in hope of reward or changing the system, but in adherence to his own personal code of conduct, and he is his own harshest critic.
Professor Kudera’s social criticism emerges from Cyrus’s quality of life conditions. Between classes, he kills time sitting in a train station, passing for one of the homeless ensconced there. Cyrus alternates between “ogling the ripe melons” of student Allison Silverman while anticipating a late-night tryst with said melons and contemplating Jewish writers in the 1920s who could “smell Hitler and Stalin in the air.”
Cyrus knows enough to ask “what kind of smell is in the air now?” In our current educational environment, knowledge isn’t important; it may even be a rotting corpse, which is perhaps what Cyrus smells. Despite his external invisibility, his inner hamster wheel is always turning. The time-worn expression “life of the mind” becomes the “life of the grind.”
So, ultimately, Cyrus’s fight is for his own standards and integrity in the face of humiliation and futility, a daily quest for survival and the strength to endure. In our “anti-progressive” age, Cyrus is emblematic of a devolving system: the itinerant medieval scholar traveling from one fiefdom to the next in tatters, hoping for a meal or bauble.
If only adjuncts read this book, they would nod and commiserate; as a work of fiction, strongly rooted in social criticism, the general public needs in on it, for one, the parents paying skyrocketing tuition costs, because they should know where the money is going. For it is certainly not in the pockets of the Cyrus Duffelmans of academia.