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Dreams Are Only What You Wake Up From

"Cool For America: Stories" Review

Life is hard, and most of the time, it never turns out exactly how you expected. When you are young, say in or right out of college, you have the expectation that the world owes you something for all the hard work that you put in. You grow up thinking that if you apply yourself, do well in school, and work hard enough, you will get a slice of that delicious pie that is commonly known as the American Dream. But, as a character in a Raymond Carver story puts it, “dreams are what you wake up from.” Eventually, sooner or later, the reality of life settles in, and you realize, nobody gets what they deserve, they only get what they can leverage out of life’s situations.

Andrew Martin’s “Cool For America: Stories” is chock-full of young Millennials who are wrestling with the realization that their actual lives do not and will likely never match up to their idealized lives. Most of these 11 stories center around characters who know they can do better but are either stuck in a subpar position or are just willing to settle because, well, sometimes, it’s easier not to fight, and sometimes, you have to have the fight beat out of you.

Take, for example, Leslie, the young woman in the opening story “No Cops”. She’s stuck dating a “flagrantly mediocre” writer who can only publish his books because his friend owns a printing press. Leslie is a copy editor for an alternative newspaper, a job that, by her own admission, bores her to death. In truth, what she really wants to do is write, if only someone, or something would give her the chance. Despite being well educated, Leslie cannot shake the sneaking suspicion that everyone in life, from the writers she edits for, to her flagrantly mediocre boyfriend, is doing far better than her. So, how does Leslie cope with this reality? Well, she does what many of the characters in “Cool For America” do, she indulges in alcohol and drugs to numb the pain.

The more I read Martin’s writing, the more I was reminded of another writer who specialized in desperately unhappy people, Denis Johnson. Both writers have a voice that I like to call “naturally cool”—that is, the words flow off the page at a breezy pace, yet, every one of them packs a natural punch of emotion. Both Martin and Johnson have a knack for handling the heartbreaking reality of heavy drug use. Another writer that Martin reminds me of is Raymond Carver (which is why I quoted him earlier), the literary icon behind the “Dirty-Realism” subgenre, where the tragedy of everyday life is put on display. Granted, Martin’s characters are not as poor as Carver’s, but their unhappiness remains a shared quality.

In “With the Christopher Kids”, the most tragic story in the collection, two siblings, Steven, an alcoholic with a slight cocaine problem, and Patricia, a recovering alcoholic fresh out of rehab, spend a rather depressing holiday together. The story takes place on Christmas Eve, while the pair are visiting their mother, and in keeping with the holiday spirit, the two decide to do a little coke and head out to a bar. Except Patricia has a bad reaction to the coke and ends up in the hospital after almost dying in a freezing car while her brother is inside of a bar ordering shots. And, in what is the most heartbreaking moment in the most heartbreaking story, when their mother arrives at the hospital, all she can do is ask “Do you ever think about how I’m going to feel when you finally kill yourselves?” 

It did not take me long to start to think about the meaning behind the name of Andrew Martin’s short story collection. What exactly makes characters like Leslie, Steven and Patricia, “Cool For America”? In the eponymous story, a character remarks of a couple “He thinks he’s such a stud because he’s a climber and a biker and whatever but he doesn’t realize he’s just, like, cool for Missoula. She’s cool for America.” My takeaway from this statement is that many of these characters’ air of coolness is only a façade, a duality of sorts, a way to hide the actual hollowness of their existence. In “Childhood, Boyhood, Youth” the plot centers around a book club made up of what can best be described as rich, over-educated, liberal hipsters, who are only taking place in this book club (they are reading “War and Peace”) to seem smarter. These characters do not come off as cool. To use a modern parlance, they come off as try-hards.

In a way, I guess duality would be the perfect word to sum up the theme of “Cool For America”. The duality between your idealized self and your actual self, and the duality between seeming “cool” while very much being a person who should not be viewed as being cool.

By: Gregory Bertrand


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