"Groundskeeping" | Reviewed by William Winkler
Owen is a student at Louisville’s fictional Ashby college, working on the groundskeeping crew to cover his attendance at a graduate-level writing seminar. Alma is resident writer and instructor in the school’s English department.
Owen lives in the basement of a home he shares with his recently widowed grandfather and his painkiller addled Uncle Cort, whose days are spent entirely playing video games on his computer. Alma lives in a guest house furnished by the college as part of her stipend.
Owen is the son of conservative lower middle-class parents, raised in western Kentucky. Alma’s parents are affluent liberal Bosnian immigrants living in Arlington Virginia.
Owen is an aspiring writer. Alma, two years younger, is an already successfully published one. Owen’s spiritual background is evangelical Christian, Alma’s is Islam. Neither is actively observant.
These, and numerous other differences between the two protagonists of Lee Cole’s debut novel, “Groundskeeping,” form the groundwork for the relationship that develops between Owen and Alma. Each finds the other’s background fascinating in the abstract, but as the bond between them deepens both come to realize that they are products of their widely differing social, economic, political, and spiritual heritages. Each acknowledges, in theory, the disparity of their backgrounds, but it takes visits by the couple to the homes of each other’s parents to bring them to the realization of how deep their roots go, and what challenges they face to maintain and grow their relationship.
Cole’s narrative traces the development of Owen and Alma’s relationship in realistic terms. There are numerous twists and turns in the plot, but none that are difficult to accept, given the skill with which Cole lets us watch the characters grow. The novel is written in the first person, Owen as narrator, yet the reader does not get the impression Owen is telling us who he is; he is showing us.
The author is a Kentucky native and a graduate of the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, where he graduated in 2019 and stayed on to teach for a year. The novel’s first paragraph states, “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.”
Cole’s novel is a testament to the importance of recognizing the depth of one’s roots and understanding how they support and nourish one’s life and relationships.