cover image Common Ground

Common Ground

Andrew Cowan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $22 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100265-8

Life's been looking pretty dreary to Ashley Brook, the unlikely hero of this wry, searching second novel from Scotland native Cowan (whose first novel, Pig, won the Sunday Times Young Writers Award). Ashley hates his job, teaching biology to bored, contemptuous high-schoolers: ""Why do you do bother doing this job, Mr Brook? Seriously? What is the point?"" asks one, in the middle of class. His pregnant girlfriend, Jay, treats him with unwavering ambivalence (the mere suggestion of marriage nauseates her), and his dour mother wants to leave his father and move in. To top it off, the government plans to pave over the local forest, and the scrappy, strongheaded Jay seems to care more about their town's doomed, somewhat kooky fight to save the trees than she cares about putting down roots of her own. Only one pleasure comes easy to Ashley: writing to his laid-off younger brother, Doug, who's squandering his ""redundancy"" (severance) pay on an adventurous, solo backpacking trip around the world. In their correspondence, Ashley reveals a saving sense of humor--and a capacity for love and warmth that sets him apart from the joyless, angry or menacing people who surround him. Like his protagonists, Cowan charms with earthy, class-conscious wit and matter-of-fact British decency. Although he relies too heavily on violence (both police and criminal) to tug at the reader's bleeding heartstrings, Cowan's efforts to mix domestic and environmental drama recall the best recent work of young Americans like Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody. Cowan clearly wants to write about what matters, and--if only as the chronicler of one new, struggling, hopeful family--he succeeds. (Sept.)