Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Groundskeeping, by Lee Cole: Love Is a Smoke Made with The Fume of Sighs

Fair warning to take this absolutely glowing review with just the tiniest grain of salt. That's because Lee Cole's debut novel Groundskeeping is an absolute wheelhouse book for me, so there's almost no chance I wasn't going to love it. And love it, I did! 

It's a campus novel. It's a love story. It's an examination of class and politics. It's a look at how writers are inspired to write what they write. And it's all narrated by a guy from a small conservative rural town trying to punch his way up in the world. Yeah, there's a lot going on here, but it works. Cole is a deeply astute writer and all these ingredients of story combine to create a richly satisfying dish. 

The story is this: Owen is 28 and drifting. He lives in this rural Kentucky town with his grandfather and Uncle Cort and works as a groundskeeper at the local small college. Still with aspirations of being a writer after crashing and drifting a bit, the job allows him to take an English class, a first step to getting his life back on track. Then, he meets Alma, 26, an already medium-successful poet and novelist who is a writer-in-residence for the year at the college. Sparks fly! 

But Alma's background -- her parents emigrated from Bosnia to escape the war when she young, she's a Muslim though non-practicing, and she attended Princeton -- is very different from Owen's. Owen's parents, though he's mildly estranged from both (hence why he's living with his grandfather) are both divorced and remarried, both evangelical Christians, and very conservative. Alma's parents, immigrants, doctors, well-educated, are...not those things. They're two families, both alike in dignity, but both skeptical of their children's choice of partner.

The story is set in 2016 and all around Owen's and Alma's rural Kentucky town, Trump is ascendent. Though Owen and Alma are both appalled by this development, their different backgrounds create its own tension. Owen has a mild inferiority complex, always wondering if Alma looks down on him, and bristles when she ask him about things like his past drug use, etc. Even in (or especially in?) this day and age, can two people from such different origins make it work?  

As I read, I felt about this book about how I feel about all books I'm connecting with. I didn't want it to end. In fact. let's let Cole himself explain what this is like (in the context of Owen meeting Alma for the first time): 

“I felt the competing desires, as I often did when meeting someone new, to know everything at once and to save it all for later. It was like the feeling one has reading a good book, the sensation of being propelled toward the end and at the same time wishing to linger.”

That's not a particularly original sentiment, I realize. But just the way Cole writes these sentences illustrates that point so clearly and deftly. It's a good representation of his style, his perceptiveness, and why I loved reading this.  

This novel first arrived on my radar when I noticed blurbs from both Ann Patchett and Richard Russo, two of my all-time favorite writers. So naturally I was going to check it out. If you are one of the many people, like me, who was disappointed by the latest Sally Rooney novel, try this one instead. The feel is similar, but this is so much better. 

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