By Drew Hart
Hardly a portrait of glory from sea to shining sea, these tales drop in on estranged, lost, and overwhelmed people.
Cool for America by Andrew Martin. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272 pp., $27.
The backyard sandcastle monument on the cover of this new story collection, Andrew Martin’s second book, a sort of sagging, twisted-looking Mount Rushmore, provides clues to what to expect from what’s inside. Cool for America serves up glimpses of life in the nation nowadays, and Martin suggests — like the sandcastle — that we are in a world of dazed impermanence. Hardly a portrait of glory from sea to shining sea, these tales drop in on estranged, lost, and overwhelmed people. Many of them are likable, and most are smart, but there are troubles afoot everywhere — in Brooklyn, in New Jersey, and frequently, in Missoula, Montana — all of which are well evoked.
So we’re bounced back and forth, although large parts of the nation are passed over. (Yours truly was relieved that California was left alone. We’re a fine mess already! Hometown Arts Fuse readers will find some Boston backgrounds.) America as depicted here is confined to a mostly white, college-educated subset — still young (say under 35), but already aware of having seen better days. A reading group, comprised of frustrated junior website editors and grad students, gather in Brighton Beach to muse on War and Peace; predictably, a lot of them haven’t read it all and are busy flirting, and arguing about other subjects. Two couples, longtime friends, get a beach share on the Jersey shore; things become complicated via a husband and wife spat, as well as an ensuing car wreck. The title story presents characters in Missoula, where one, a summer program photography teacher, trapped in his house with a broken leg after a pick-up soccer scrimmage, finds himself receiving come-hither advances from a female neighbor, unhappy in her own marriage. (She’s the one described as “cool for America.” But just which one and what kind of cool?)
These tales pile up, echoing one another: a thirty-two year old office worker in Boston, insecure about her mundane career and her lukewarm boyfriend; a graduate student, again in Montana, waiting for his patrician East Coast father to visit, meanwhile dealing with the children of the divorcee he’s been seeing; a pair of mid-twenties siblings in Princeton, home for Thanksgiving, the brother at once tempting and protecting his newly sober sister. Has booze been mentioned yet? The drinking in the book is prodigious, and troubling for many within. Dive bar fights, DUI’s… anyone struggling with alcohol is hereby advised. While Zappa sang “America Drinks and Goes Home,” here it’s staying out until last call, and beyond! Cheever would have been in lockstep —
And not to cite only Cheever: with its educated, confused, often self-destructive voices, Cool calls up memories of earlier misfits chronicled by Salinger, Updike, Richard Ford, and Tom McGuane. Maybe Franny and Zooey are looking down from on high? Or purgatory… Of course this is admirable company; although Martin’s stories can trail off at times without resolving themselves, and while his characters can at times sound stilted, he is consistently serving up inventive twists and clever asides. There is strength in the aggregate here — it’s an amusingly sardonic look at this era, which is clearly proving to be an uneasy one, no? (There’s even a story entitled, “No Cops.” How timely is that!) Well, we can wonder over whether this will all hold up well but, at the moment, aren’t we wondering about that in general anyways —
Drew Hart is from Santa Barbara, California