cover image Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner. Coffee House, $15 trade paper (186p) ISBN 978-1-56689-274-2

In Madrid on a fellowship, a young American poet examines his ambivalence about authenticity in this noteworthy debut novel by acclaimed poet Lerner, whose poetry collection, Angle of Yaw, was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. Adam, the hilariously unreliable narrator who describes himself as a "violent, bipolar, compulsive liar," is both repellent and reassuringly familiar, contradictorily wishing to connect and to alienate. His social interactions are often lost in translation: "They wanted the input of a young American poet writing and reading abroad and wasn't that what I was, not just what I was pretending to be? Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent." Lerner has fun with the interplay between the unreliable spoken word and subtleties in speech and body language, capturing the struggle of a young artist unsure of the meaning or value of his art. Even major events, like the 2004 Madrid train bombings, are simply moments that Adam is both witness to and separate from; entering into a conversation around the wreckage, he argues: "Poetry makes nothing happen." Lerner succeeds in drawing out the problems inherent in art, expectation, and communication. And his Adam is a complex creation, relatable but unreliable, humorous but sad, at once a young man adrift and an artist intensely invested in his surroundings. (Sept.)