At the start of “No Cops,” the first story in Andrew Martin’s new collection, “Cool for America,” a 27-year-old woman named Leslie begins writing an e-mail to her ex-boyfriend on her ant-infested laptop before giving up and treating herself to a day beer. It’s a fitting opening to the book — Leslie, like many of the young characters in the book, is charmingly feckless and flailing through life, trying not too hard to make sense of the world.
Leslie, also a character in Martin’s debut novel, “Early Work,” has moved from the East to Missoula, Mont. She’s “depressed and barely employed” at an alternative newspaper, and dating a man who’s “a dog trainer, novelist, and organic grocery store employee.” She accompanies her boyfriend to a reading at a bookstore and then a bar; their night out ends semi-disastrously. The story manages to be both deeply funny and deeply troubling, which is the case for every story in Martin’s remarkable book.
In “With the Christopher Kids,” a young man reunites with his sister and mother at Christmas. He’s recently been dumped by his girlfriend (“Why wait until after the holiday disasters to sever ties? It was one less thing to hold against each other forever”) and trying to self-medicate his depression away with alcohol and cocaine.
When his sister asks him to share his narcotics, he agrees, even though she’s recently been to rehab. Her indulgence leads not just to a hospitalization, but to a long relapse, and the story ends rather grimly — it’s a good thing to try to be better, Martin seems to suggest, but it’s advisable not to get your hopes up.
The book’s other stories also focus on young people at crossroads in their lives but finding themselves in a metaphorical car without a steering wheel. In the title story, a photography teacher, housebound with a badly broken leg, engages in a romantic fling that he knows is ill-advised. And in “Short Swoop, Long Line,” a young man tries to navigate his feelings for an older woman with whom he’s having a purely sexual relationship at the same time his father comes to visit him in Montana. (The story features perhaps the book’s funniest section, in which his father, who has recently learned about “bronies,” tries to explain the concept of “My Little Pony”-loving adult men to his son.)
The collection ends with a story that also features Leslie, the possibly alcoholic young woman in Missoula. She impulsively accepts an invitation to a wedding from a man she’s just met, where she ends up meeting a variety of ridiculous people, including an aspiring author whose book-in-progress “is based on market research plus my own unique blend of humor and wisdom.”
It’s an absurd line, of course, but Martin has a real talent for highlighting the absurdity of life while never condescending to his characters. Every story in “Cool for America” is smart, stylish and a testament to Martin’s keen observations on the human condition. As one character says, “It’s just exhausting. Why is it so impossible to just relax and be a person?”
Michael Schaub is a journalist who lives in Texas.
Cool for America
By: Andrew Martin.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272 pages, $27.