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Cover letters spin stories

March 17, 2009 |  8:04 am

OverqualifiedWhen unemployment numbers were released last week, the news was terrible: first-time requests for unemployment insurance up to 654,000; the  proportion of Americans receiving unemployment benefits the highest since 1983. Lots and lots and lots of us will be filling out job applications -- and writing cover letters.

The cover-letter format -- a respectful salutation, an explanation of why you are perfect for this job -- is part truthful representation, part show and dance. In cover letters, applicants mold themselves into the person they imagine the employer would most likely hire.

What happens when that persona cracks is the underlying premise of "Overqualified," a novel in cover letters by Joey Comeau from ECW Press. "Dear Park Lane Mall," is a typical beginning. "Dear Queen Elizabeth Hospital," "Dear Sirs or Madams!"

But after describing his qualifications -- which, after a few letters, start to seem impossibly contradictory -- the fictional Joey falls into a kind of on-the-couch confessional, detailing problems with his girlfriend, childhood memories, misadventures in sex. Some of these letters might have gotten a real person arrested; he certainly wouldn't have been hired.

There have been spoof letter-writing books in the past, like "The Lazlo Letters" by Don Novello (a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci) and several that followed. While the protagonist in "Overqualified" is just as unhinged as his predecessors, he's significantly less giddy. A real story unfolds in these pages, about a departed brother and the sibling left behind. It's sad and fragmented and, in places, funny.

This slender epistolary novel is charming.  But remember it's not a how-to guide. Writing "I really hate data entry" might feel good, but a cover letter is no place for confession. Save that for your shrink -- providing your new employer's healthcare program covers visits to therapy.

-- Carolyn Kellogg