Lee Cole’s debut novel “Groundskeeping,” was released on March 1. Set against the backdrop of the 2016 Presidential election, the novel is narrated by Owen Callahan, a Kentucky native who begins a job as a groundskeeper at Ashby College. There, he takes free writing classes and falls in love with Alma Hadzic, a Muslim immigrant from Bosnia and a writer-in-residence.
After struggling with an opioid addiction in his early twenties, living in his car, and working dead-end jobs, Owen moves in with his grandfather ‘Pop’ and lives in the basement, sharing the house with his eccentric Uncle Cort. Owen cuts trees, watches Western movies with Pop and eats McDonald’s every day for breakfast.
When Owen meets Alma at a graduation party, he first tells her “I’ve always had the same predicament. 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.” This sets the novel in motion, as Owen struggles with deciding whether to stay in the place he has always known with the woman he loves or leave for a chance at his dream of becoming a writer.
Cole presents a complex portrayal of the South, complete with class, politics, addiction—and of course, Cracker Barrel— that feels nuanced and authentic. Although the novel was described as a romance, it read more like a study of Kentucky and its inhabitants. Owen spends most of the novel trying to convince Alma, whose family lived through the tragedies and horror of a war, that the people of his town have suffered, too, and that their stories are worth writing about. This felt like an unfair comparison but was compelling, nonetheless.
The novel is unique in that it does not have chapter titles or dialogue tags and reads like we are following along with Owen's unprocessed, stream-of-consciousness thoughts. I found this to be an effective way to present the novel for Owen’s character. Due to this narration style, however, Alma felt underdeveloped and so did their romantic relationship.
The result of the 2016 Presidential election is a source of tension in the novel, but one that fizzled out by the end. Owen is liberal despite his mother and stepfather being Evangelical Christians—who voted for Trump. I expected greater conflict surrounding this fact, considering Alma is also liberal and an immigrant, but it did not affect their relationship in the way I expected.
“Groundskeeping” is a remarkable debut novel and Lee Cole is an author I will watch. I would recommend this novel and give it 3 out of 5 stars.