‘Ground Up’ by Michael Idov

Ground Up

A Novel

Michael Idov

Farrar, Straus and Giroux:

286 pp., $14 paper

Full disclosure: I am thanked in the acknowledgments section of “Ground Up.” Yes, I was one of the anonymous “very, very few patrons” of Café Trotsky, the kaffeehaus that Michael Idov and his wife ran on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for a six-month stint in 2005. Maybe he shouldn’t be so gracious. I went only once. I think I ordered a latte and a croissant, conversed with a chatty barista about the indie rock he played off an iPod, and, living nowhere nearby, casually filed this pleasant café away for another visit in the distant future.

In other words, I am exactly the type of boho dilettante responsible for Idov’s entrepreneurship nightmare, both by making him think he could pull it off and by ultimately choosing to spend my money elsewhere. Unwilling to let a learning experience escape his grasp, Idov -- a staff writer at New York magazine -- detailed this struggle in a memorable Slate essay and has now expanded the story into a fictionalized debut novel. “The scary part,” Idov wrote, by way of justifying this cautionary tale, “is that you think you can do better.”

As an inquiry into the value of honest labor at a moment when every ink-stained wretch is scrambling to “monetize,” “Ground Up” couldn’t feel more timely. Every scribe working in a coffee shop -- and I see quite a few of us from where I sit -- will, upon facing a momentary writer’s block, look up at the counter and think we’ve spied our new calling. Idov exhorts us to wake up and smell the fair-trade espresso.

First, the specifics: Mark Scharf is a freelance book critic for Kirkus Reviews, and his wife, Nina, practices entertainment law for a peculiar media start-up. “We formed one of those repulsive New York couples that combined traits of every population stratum. Nina and I were bohos, yuppies, unemployed trust-fund kids, and starving artists at the same time.” With their combination of listlessness and snobbery, coupled with inspiration from a Vienna honeymoon and a hefty bet against their apartment’s equity, the newlyweds open Café Kolschitzky -- regrettably named for a 17th century Austrian war hero who may have helped invent modern café society -- on a stealthily gentrifying patch of the Lower East Side. The idea of a Mitteleuropean café in Manhattan’s hippest neighborhood is financially unpromising, and maybe that’s OK: They will be “paid in meaning.”

The strength of Idov’s satire is its explosion of the money-isn’t-everything myth that keeps so many artistic types tethered to their dreams. “Ground Up” is a sort of business procedural, chock full of details about cash flow, the perennial quality versus quantity debate, the unfortunate necessity of paying for PR, and how to sell a $3 egg sandwich for $11. (The word “truffled” is a cash cow.) He also provides an honest accounting of what he calls the Great Manhattan Social Contract, which makes the city “a safe haven for characters determined to unhinge their social status from their economic one.” We learn the outsize power of foodie blogs and glossy magazine reviews, and grow to resent the laptop users who purchase one coffee so they can stay all day.

Yes, a well-earned resentment is the engine that drives the narrative. Elitism, represented here as the desire to launch a bona-fide cultural establishment instead of a Starbucks-style moneymaker, is at the root of the Scharfs’ misfortune.

In his transition from magazine journalist to fiction writer, Idov retains his keen descriptive eye but too often lets self-consciousness get the better of him; like the fictional co-owner of Café Kolschitzky (who, as a book critic, takes a pointed delight in savaging debut novels), Idov is overly concerned with the inevitable intrusions of cliché. When the café's contractor singles out his female prey with a power drill, it’s described as “a metaphor that wouldn’t pass muster with the world’s most oblivious writer if it were a metaphor.” When Mark searches for Nina’s misplaced wedding ring, she warns him: “Just don’t say ‘If I were a wedding ring, where would I be?’ ” Earlier, Idov describes the couple’s rapid-fire conversational style as something you might hear in screwball comedies “but never, almost never,” in “real conversation.”

Still, the pleasures of “Ground Up” are readily evident, less the result of schadenfreude than identification with an all-too-recognizable urban malaise. For the ranks of the unemployed, it reassures that a hard day’s work doesn’t necessarily yield its own rewards. And for a former one-time denizen of Café Trotsky, the book serves as a worthwhile memento -- and an explanation.

But I’m curious. If Idov is so bruised by capitalism’s mockery of quixotic bohemian endeavors, why get into the business of writing novels?

Gottlieb writes about books and film for the Nation.