cover image Groundskeeping


Lee Cole. Knopf, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-32050-1

Cole’s nimble debut combines elements of Southern fiction, the campus novel, and youthful romance. Twenty-eight-year-old Owen Callahan, an aspiring writer, returns to his native Kentucky in 2016 after being semi-homeless in Colorado. He takes a job as a groundskeeper at Ashby College, where he audits a writing workshop and meets Alma Hadzics, the daughter of Bosnian immigrants. Alma has already published a book of short stories and is at Ashby on a fellowship. Alma has a sort of boyfriend, and she and Owen drift into a relationship that slowly becomes more serious. Inevitably, he introduces her to his dysfunctional family and she introduces him to her prosperous mother and father. Owen’s uncle Cort is a MAGA-lover, and Alma’s parents always have MSNBC on. In the end, it’s not politics that threatens to derail Owen and Alma’s romance but fealty to their own professional aspirations as Owen’s literary career begins to take off. Cole fills his novel with a gallery of fascinating supporting characters such as Owen’s conspiracy theorist coworker Rando; Owen’s grandfather, a WWII vet who keeps a VHS collection of classic westerns; and Alma’s Springsteen-loving father. And though Owen makes some questionable choices, he and Alma make for an odd couple worth rooting for. In the end, this is the strongest story about young writers in love since Andrew Martin’s Early Work. (Mar.)