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Review: A millennial after Denis Johnson’s warm, damaged heart

Andrew Martin, author of the short story collection "Cool For America."
Andrew Martin, author of the short story collection, “Cool For America.”
(Caroline Martin)

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Of all the fun, irresistible, smart and wise stories in “Cool for America,” a new collection by the promising young writer Andrew Martin, the one I’d vote Most Likely to End Up in A Timeless Anthology is the first one, “No Cops.”

“She was trying to see how long she could go without getting a new computer,” Martin writes of Leslie, whose boyfriend has left her to go to Italy, “like a punk-ass.” The guy she’s dating now? Cal, a “flagrantly mediocre” writer prone to ticking off all the influence cliches — Bolaño, Foster Wallace, Roth.

Leslie, whom Martin fans will know from his debut novel, “Early Work,” is more discerning — or she’s sure, at any rate, “what was good and what wasn’t.” New York, is a “nightmare of pointless ambition.” Princeton, where she’s from, teems with damaged kids “zapped awful by divorce and private school.” In Montana, where Leslie has ended up, she desperately seeks purpose. But just before Cal’s reading, her fellow 27-year-old friend Kim offers her perspective. “We’re just little babies.”

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“Drunk-ass babies,” Leslie corrects her, with mirth. Kim suggests that writing might be a way out or through. “But you have to not hate what you write, you know?” Leslie says. “Which is hard if you hate yourself to begin with.”

“Early Work” made an impressive number of best-of-2018 lists, and this set of interlocking pieces on young lives throttling back and forth between Montana and the northeast is bound for some more. Martin’s fictional universe of drugs and disappointment, cleverness and self-doubt, shot through with flashes of crackling lucidity, is funny but empathetic toward its deeply flawed characters. Reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s beautiful and insightful 1992 debut, “Jesus’s Son,” “Cool for America” thrives in the same gorgeous space between chaos and contemplation. In short: Bad people can be good, and they’re generally fun to read about.

Cover jacket of the book "Cool For America: Stories" by author Andrew Martin.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Take the story “With the Christopher Kids,” in which a grown brother and sister have just limped their way home to New Jersey for Christmas from their separate desultory pursuits. Both are alive to the weirdness of the world in that twitchy and fragile way of people either in recovery or in need of it. “There was new snow out there that crunched under my feet in a non-hostile way,” the narrator, Stevie, observes. “Someone had put cows in the field behind the woods.” A few pages later: “I should probably mention here that I don’t know anything about cocaine.” Soon enough, his sister Patricia is in the hospital.

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Martin is maybe at his best when wringing as much meaning as he can from the collision of East Coast manners and Montana’s rough charm. Another standout story, “Short Swoop, Long Line,” concerns Alex, a youngish guy, full of potential, who finds himself the boy toy of Kate, a new divorcee with two sons. What sets the piece in motion is the arrival from back East of his father, Tom. Will Kate take up with Tom instead? Will her teenaged kids ever stop attacking Alex with homophobic slurs? Is the local gin any good? Anything might happen.

Denis Johnson ought to have had a free pass. Denis Johnson ought to have been exempt.

In “A Dog Named Jesus” — probably the collection’s saddest and most difficult piece — the action returns to Leslie as she arrives at a destination wedding. Her date had promised hot springs, which turns out to be an indoor pool (in his defense, Jake assures her it does smell like sulfur). Then, having dragged her halfway across Montana, Jake ends up sleeping with someone else. In a teepee. So what can Leslie do? Not much, except to entertain the woman’s half-hearted apology.

Taut, entertaining, sharp on literature and the way we live now, “Cool for America” is relentlessly pleasing and keen in a way that might make you crave more from Martin on the world beyond his established territory. Everything that falls under his purview feels simultaneously familiar and utterly original. Did you know that boarding school is “where everyone was training to die of a heart attack on a yacht in the Bahamas”? That in an elitist book club, the Harvard kids act “mildly embarrassed” if you say something stupid, while the Yalies make sure to “keep the humiliation public and, if possible, prolonged”? Now you do.

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It’s worth asking: Do we need more stories like this? About white people dealing with addiction and ambition, their boring jobs and lack of love? Before you decide, consider the best moment in “No Cops.” When a man without a permanent address is blocking the entrance to the bookstore where mediocre Cal will soon be reading, Leslie and Kim choose basic decency over cruelty or indifference. If even drunk babies can be good, maybe there’s hope for all of us.

Cool for America
Andrew Martin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pages, $27


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