If these names are virtually interchangeable, then so are the characters themselves. Julia and Leslie are all but identical: attractive, “laid back” (my scare quotes), adept at clever banter. Ditto the men: attractive enough (though tending toward chubbiness), “chill,” adept at clever flirtation. All the characters, even the minor ones, are like this. They have barely any money in their bank accounts, and many of them are only ambiguously employed, but it’s never a cause for genuine concern. They hang out in dive bars, where they drink cheap beers and take shots. Weed is vaped, cigarettes are guiltily smoked. (“Man, smoking,” Peter sighs.) They have omnivorous tastes in books and indifferent taste in clothing. They listen to John Prine, but also Drake. They are steeped in the stupidity of pop culture, but also stand in front of paintings by On Kawara and wonder whether they are any good or not. They end normal sentences in question marks, punctuate their text messages with mock all-caps exclamations (“DRINKS?”), and pepper their speech with “uh” and “like” and “naw.” They are sophisticated but they’re not, you know, snobs.
As a writer, Martin exemplifies these traits. His prose is smooth and unfussy; as his stoner-intellectual characters might say, it pulls really well. To quote him would be misleading, since it’s not really on the sentence level where Martin excels, but in the book’s easygoing flow. (To wit: “When I arrived home at three o’clock, I got very stoned and drank whiskey and ice from a jumbo plastic cup.”) It is all voice, no lyricism. Martin, like many other American writers of his generation, is not one to strain for anything so gauche as poetry.
Instead there is a lot of authentic-ish dialogue, and the unhurried meanderings of Peter’s mind, and straightforward descriptions of very good sex, and little asides of cultural criticism. In this respect, Early Work is reminiscent of Paris Trance by Geoff Dyer, except the characters are American and therefore less interesting. Its tone of studied casualness is also reminiscent of the guy on Twitter with a devouring hunger for all things culture, who can speak fluently about both the avant-garde appeal of Andy Warhol’s silent films and “James Harden and the ugly splendor of the Rockets’ approach to basketball,” as Peter says. Nothing is beneath him, but nothing is above him either.
Peter and Leslie resurface in Cool for America, joined by similar characters of similar backgrounds. Several stories are set in Missoula, Montana, another college town with a prestigious writing program, though both Charlottesville and Missoula really function as satellites of the ur-writing town Brooklyn. (There are stories set in Brooklyn, too.) The old MFA vs. NYC distinction collapses in these books, revealing the swamp in which editorial assistants and unpublished novelists and creative writing adjuncts all swim—an indication, perhaps, of the creeping Brooklynization of America’s literary hot spots. It is representative, too, of the increasingly circumscribed world of autofiction, which, out of fear of straying too far from the straight and narrow of the writer’s own experience, keeps things local, so to speak, shrinking its vistas to the dive bar, the studio apartment, the classroom.
There are, thankfully, different kinds of stories in this collection than Martin’s go-to story of the scruffy writerly type who may or may not be in the midst of screwing up his life. There is a tale about a pair of sibling drug addicts that is by turns horrifying and amusing. There is another about a drunk father ruining a family vacation, and one about two teens going to a hardcore punk concert. The alcohol and drug abuse is less cheerfully innocent in this book than the previous one, which features a funny Animal House-like scene in which one of Peter’s friends is “drinking directly from a bottle of Old Grand-Dad, gratuitously swishing the whiskey around in his mouth and gargling before swallowing it.” But lest you should see Cool for America as a gritty reboot of Early Work, there is the same carefully cultivated nonchalance, a sense that even the emptiness of these people’s lives is a bit shallow. “The pursuit of unavailable women was the closest I could get to a life’s passion,” a Peter-like character says.
There is a passage in Early Work in which Peter elucidates something like a theory for how a short story should go: “I like it best when things just stop.” Sure enough, nothing really happens in the stories in Cool for America, and then they just stop. There is no Joycean epiphany, no god descending from the proverbial rafters. There is only life in media res, and the result is a successful translation of autofiction, which we normally associate with multi-volume quasi-autobiography, into a short story form. Within Martin’s preferred context of the quarter-life crisis, the effect is to suggest that your twenties may be a confusing time, when you have to make all these life-altering decisions without the wisdom yet to make them well, but there is no future stage when that wisdom arrives.
If Martin presents life as it is, then what sort of life is it? It often seems to be a ghostly imitation of existence. There is an ironic distance between these characters and their so-called passions, because no one really allows themselves to take anything too seriously. Early Work is at its best when it simply lets the relationship between Peter and Leslie bloom. “Leslie grinned at me,” Peter recounts, “the full-toothed thing, which, maybe, was the first tentative step into the abyss of the rest of my life, or whatever you want to call it. Love.” But when the complications that come from cheating on one’s girlfriend inevitably set in, Peter shrinks from describing them in the old, ardent language of thwarted love: “I wanted my unhappiness to be a result of defying convention—like a Hardy novel where I’d exceeded my society’s allowance for free thinking and was now being punished. But I wasn’t actually that stupid.”
The story of Early Work is thus less a tragedy or a romance than a sad joke. Certainly, Martin is making a comment about these characters, and about the white middle and upper classes to which they belong, that is meant to be critical. (In an interview with the Paris Review, Martin described the book as being about “a moderately hideous man and some slightly less hideous women.”) And certainly, there is immense value in stories about white people having quotidian crises. If I’m perfectly honest about my reading tastes, I actually prefer these kinds of stories. War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, In Search of Lost Time—all books premised on extreme white privilege. Some of the best books of recent vintage, such as the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, can be read as unapologetic narratives of white privilege. To St. Aubyn’s credit, he seems to loathe the inhabitants of his own milieu; Andrew Martin, for better or for worse, can’t help but like the ones in his.