Ten years have passed since I hung up my satchel and retired as the book editor of the Courier Journal, after a quarter-century of reading and writing about new titles. Rarely, if ever, during that period have I been as enthusiastic as I am for “Groundskeeping,” a timely debut novel by an important new voice for Kentucky, and American, literature.
His name is Lee Cole, and you’ll be hearing a lot from him.
He grew up near Melber, Kentucky, midway between Paducah and Mayfield – and about 250 miles southwest of Louisville. His novel takes his central character to Colorado and to Virginia, but mostly he stays in his native Kentucky, working as a groundskeeper at a well-regarded (but fictional) college near Louisville.
“I’ve always had the same predicament,” laments Owen Callahan, the novel’s protagonist, and an aspiring writer. “When I’m home in Kentucky, all I want is to leave. When I’m away, I’m homesick for a place that never was. ”
No matter where readers come from, surely they have felt that way on occasion. I know I have. And yes, like Owen, I find myself remaining in the Bluegrass state, maddening though it can be for its backward political and racial views and the deep divisions among its people.
“United We Stand, Divided We Fall” is the state’s motto, and in the end, it’s also the message of Cole’s book. For despite myriad challenges, Owen Callahan is a kind of healing force as he makes his way through his various worlds.
Every weekday morning, he goes off to his job working on the wooded campus of the fictional Ashby College, where his colleagues include a gifted young Black history student and a warm-hearted, Beatles-loving redneck. This duo offers Owen companionship – and challenges to his social conscience. So do members of his own family – his divorced parents and their second spouses, his brain-injured, MAGA-loving uncle, and most of all his elderly grandfather, Pop.
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Though most characters in “Groundskeeping” are composites, Pop is based on Lee Cole’s own grandfather, the late Creston Shelton, to whom the novel is dedicated. Owen’s entire fictional family voted for Donald Trump in 2016, yet he was a true-blue Clinton supporter.
So was the woman with whom he forms an attachment at a grad student party, Alma Hazdic. A Bosnian-Muslim immigrant who grew up in the affluent Virginia suburbs of Washington, she is a writer-in-residence at Ashby College. In exchange for his hard work pruning and felling trees, Owen gets to take one free course, and he chooses a graduate seminar in writing. Alma and Owen bond early in the story, and in time they become lovers.
Most of the book is set in Louisville of the mid-2010s. All sorts of familiar places are the settings – Old Louisville, Germantown, Bardstown Road, Clifton, Joe Creason Park and the Louisville Zoo, Belknap Campus and Cave Hill Cemetery. And in a very important segment, the Abbey of Gethsemani and the graveyard there, where Thomas Merton is buried. These are the stuff of future nostalgia.
“Groundskeeping” has plenty of conflicts, but it is also a memorable love story. Alma and Owen may agree politically, but their backgrounds are quite different, and the scars each bears from childhood are deep, sometimes divisive, too. Alma is two years younger than Owen, but her Princeton degree and sophistication make her seem much older. Yet, in the end, it is Owen who proves to be wiser (although it takes some hard knocks for the reader to realize this).
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From time to time, Cole’s prose is achingly right. For instance, beholding Alma on the streets of Louisville, he thinks “She looked beautiful there in the glow of the lamp, and I was struck with such sudden affection for her that I had to hold my breath against it.”
Or this: “A stink wafted on the breeze some nights in Butchertown – the smell of singed hair and flesh from the slaughterhouses – and this was the case that night. Butchertown was not one of those meat-packing districts that no longer packed meat. ”
Since the story is told from Owen’s perspective, we get fewer insights into the minds of those around him. But his own wisdom, which develops as the book progresses, is on the mark, and sometimes profound. In Pop’s basement, he’s surrounded by antiquities of various sorts – farming implements, a rusty old Pepsi sign, a Confederate bayonet, old VHS cassettes of John Wayne movies, and a scratchy sofa where he crashes most nights because he has nowhere else to go.
But that man cave prompts him to think about the rural culture that seems to enshrine such objects, of which the Cracker Barrel restaurants are shrines. Owen observes:
“Nostalgia was always a lie, I decided. It always covered something up. ”
In his rural Kentucky world, that nostalgia covered up the reverence for ignorance, inbreeding, prejudice and twisted religion. And in Arlington, Virginia, Alma’s parents have created their own WASPY-world of MSNBC mantras and John Cheever-like décor in their living room. Deep down, however, they are scarred by the nightmare of their own cruel origins in a place that was brutal and purposefully forgotten. And by the signature Trump denigration of Islam, central to his 2016 campaign.
Surprises abound in Cole’s book, but not predictable ones. And you will have to read it to discover what they are. And with “Groundskeeping,” this young man joins a pantheon of living Kentucky writers including Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry and Sena Jeter Naslund.
Keith L. Runyon was book editor of The Courier Journal from 1989-2012. His first reviews appeared in the fall of 1969.
IF YOU GO:
Lee Cole will read from “Groundskeeping” and autograph copies on Thursday, March 24 at 7 pm at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 161 Lexington Green Circle, Lexington.