by Lee Cole, published 2022
This is a writer’s novel, and as such I am going to critique it as a writer. Still, I do think it has broad appeal and explores a unique place. How many books have you read that take place in Kentucky? I don’t think I’ve read any before Groundskeeping.
Owen was into drugs, living in his car, and too ashamed to ask his parents for help, until he returns to Kentucky to live with his grandfather and oddball uncle. He takes a groundskeeping job at the local university with the added perk of a creative writing class. We learn gradually about his interest in writing, but for most of the novel he only jots down quick notes — mostly observations about people and places. It’s unclear (to me, at least) if the novel itself is the culmination of these notes, and I think this is an important point to resolve in regard to the plot.
His world is small but interesting — two fellow groundskeepers, one sort-of classmate/friend, and Alma, a visiting tutor and writer, who he falls for almost immediately. Alma is a Muslim immigrant who grew up in a wealthy suburb of D.C., went to a prestigious university and now lives in one of the fancy campus cottages reserved for important people. She has published some work and has a forthcoming novel. Owen’s family is working class, his bank account hovers near nothing, and he lives in his grandfather’s basement. He scribbles in a notebook. You can see how this dynamic could become complicated, yet they maintain a keen interest in one another.
Alma is “culturally” Muslim, but doesn’t observe most of the traditional religious rules. She is personally offended by Owen’s family’s politics. Owen is embarrassed to show her where he lives, and when it comes to his family, he is ashamed that he feels ashamed of them. He loves and respects them, but in the wake of Trump’s election, he struggles to reconcile this love with their opposing political attitudes. While I usually resist storylines with current events as a major plot point, this novel delicately explores the impact of the 2016 election on friendships and family relationships, asking the question, How do you love someone who votes for a person and ideology that you view as entirely hateful and repulsive? There is no clear answer (although I’d love one!).
This theme was handled with a light touch that I truly enjoyed, especially in contrast to some of the characterization that became redundant to the point of distraction. I found Owen and Alma’s relationship simply ordinary — two young people with very strong opinions from different backgrounds trying to make it work. It seemed clear to me that it ultimately would not, but maybe I’m just a cynic. 2.5 stars.