Groundskeeping by Lee Cole: ‘Isn’t that what fiction is, though? Sanctioned lying?’  

Cover image for Groundskeeping by Lee Cole This is the third novel in as many weeks I’ve read with a writing theme although it’s entirely different from either Antoine Wilson’s Mouth to Mouth or Andrew Lipstein’s Last Resort. It was part of my attraction to Lee Cole’s Groundskeeping but if I’m honest it was that lovely jacket that first snagged my attention. Cole’s debut follows Owen, recently returned to Kentucky from Colorado where things went awry.

I knew I would look back and say that this is when it all began. It would be over one day, and I would become once more this ghost, watching himself stand in the dark room, beginning the story, without knowing the end  

Owen lives in his grandfather’s basement, made distinctly unwelcome by his irascible uncle who also shares the house. It’s not where Owen wanted to be in his late 20s but it’s better than living in his Buick and wrestling with a drug problem. He’s working as a groundskeeper at the local liberal arts college enabling him to take a writing class, free of charge. At a college party he meets Alma, the writer in residence, younger than him but with a short story collection already published. Owen’s days are spent pruning trees, falling into a friendship with his colleague James as they listen to Rando’s endless ramblings. His evenings are spent writing or watching westerns with Pop until James invites him to a bar where he sees Alma again and slips into a relationship with her that grows into love despite the many obstacles in their way, not least her boyfriend who happens to be Owen’s classmate. As the year wears on, Owen grapples with the ‘jungle narrative’ theme of his writing workshop and Pop continues to ask him to trim the tree in his garden.

Well, I don’t know, he said. I don’t have any experience in the area, but I’d have to guess that if you hitch your waggon to a writer, you’re bound to get written about   

Groundskeeping is one of those quietly addictive novels you can sink into and not notice how long you’ve been reading it. Owen tells us his own story with a wry humour, fully aware of his tendency to regress into adolescence around his family but determined not to slide back into aimlessness. His relationship with Alma is well drawn, their mutual ransacking of each other’s lives for their writing nicely handled and the cultural gulf between their families neatly summed up when Pop mentions a John Wayne movie and Alma recalls a Joan Didion essay on it. Cole has a knack for sharp characterisation – Pop was my particular favourite with his hobo past and his quiet concern for this grandson he doesn’t entirely understand. I thoroughly enjoyed this quietly accomplished novel which evokes a sense of place so vividly that Kentucky is almost a character in itself. Very much looking forward to what Cole comes up with next.

Faber & Faber: London ‎ 9780571371075 336 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

18 thoughts on “Groundskeeping by Lee Cole: ‘Isn’t that what fiction is, though? Sanctioned lying?’  ”

      1. Novels about writers always appeal. This does sound good. I remember you mentioning it before on one of your posts about books to look out for. That beautiful, simple cover is very memorable.

  1. Sounds beautiful, Susan, and the fact that it’s published by Faber is another positive sign. They seem to be on a roll at the moment, especially with this kind of quietly compelling fiction.

  2. I love the sound of the grandfather/grandson relationship. That, in itself, has me sold on it. It makes me think of Miriam Toews’ Fight Night, which I loved!

    1. Touchingly, there’s a mention of Cole’s grandfather in the acknowledgements. I loved Fight Night, too. So funny but moving, too. Not published here until June.

  3. I just submitted my review this morning, so I’ve popped back to read yours. I spent so much time exploring times that I didn’t get to touch on so many of the lovely details you’ve mentioned. I shared your love for the Kentucky setting and his relationship with Pop. I particularly appreciated his interrogation of stereotypes, and the poking fun at creative writing courses.

    1. That ‘jungle narrative’ course theme was excruciating as was Owen and Alma’s inability to resist using each other in their writing. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Who did you review it for?

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