Cool for America
A REFLECTION ON ANDREW MARTIN’S BOOK
By KATIE KANE
When my sister was born and I was in kindergarten, my family decided that our little yellow house was too small for us, so we moved across town. My short time on Brookside Avenue was filled with theater camp down the street at my neighbors’ house, my own pink bedroom with clouds on the ceiling, and a rock driveway I hated because it hurt my feet. One day, my bus picked me up at the old yellow house and dropped me off at the new big gray house, and that was it.
We were the first to live in this house. The house before it had burned down in an accidental fire set by the previous owner’s cigarette. When we first moved in, I was putting my clothes away in my new big-girl closet when our doorbell rang. I hid behind my mom and looked on the porch, and there was a crowd of neighbors greeting us with a pumpkin pie. I didn’t like pumpkin pie and I didn’t know these people.
There was a little girl that looked to be my age. She was wearing a red fleece zip-up. Seeing her was a lighthouse to me among all the adults and children of varying ages. That St. Patrick’s Day, my mom invited her to come play with me. She lived right next door and we played for hours with my Barbies and were so sad to part when she had to go home for dinner.
Soon, she became one of my best friends. She was the oldest of three kids, a sister and a brother, just like me, and her brother was the same age as my sister. My brother was diagnosed with autism only a year or so before and was mostly nonverbal, so he typically stayed at home. The other five of us would trudge between our two backyards all day, finding something to get involved in. Their middle sister, Maya, wore fancy dresses in the winter, even to play outside, and only bathing suits in the summer. Sean, the youngest, became my sister’s best pal, proving that a boy and girl could be best friends, no cooties involved. We would always tease that they would get married. And then there was me and Sam. We were inseparable. I would perch myself by our kitchen window, looking for their maroon Chrysler Voyager, the late 90s minivan that looked like a beetle, waiting for them to pull into the driveway, then calling their home number—which I had memorized—to see if they could come out and play. I told her that we should construct a slide to connect our bedroom windows, so we could hang out whenever we wanted.
We’d make gross concoctions out of dirt, hose water, leaves, and bugs. We’d pretend we lived in Jamestown, a place I learned about in school, under my back porch steps. We’d have fashion shows in the front yard with her mom’s clothes. We would hang out on our swing sets or her hammock. We would climb her magnolia tree. We loved summers because no one had school, so we could spend all day together. July was the best because they would have an amazing Fourth of July party, then celebrate Sam’s birthday at the end of the month, both with a shaving cream slip-and-slide and water balloon fight. The worst was when they went to the Adirondacks for two weeks, which felt like eternity. When they would come back, we would go right back to hopping on top of their outdoor storage container and jumping off into each other’s backyards. They had a raspberry bush in the backyard that we would pick raspberries from, many of them still white and not ready, but some fine to eat. When we played in their house, we couldn’t watch TV and instead had to “use our imaginations,” but sometimes, we would sneak onto the computer to play the original Sims. Some days when we came to my house, even with my mom’s insistence to go outside, we would just sit and watch hours of TV. They didn’t watch much TV at their house, so talking to them while they were glued to the TV was next to impossible.
Our families were so different. I was raised Catholic while her family was Unitarian, which was explained to me as “atheist but with a church to go to.” I went to Catholic school, they went to public school. I grew up going to dance classes, Sam went to soccer. We had cable, they had five channels. We had one computer, they had three. They had all this weird, healthy food at their house, which I later found out came from a mystical place called Trader Joe’s, while my mom gave into our love of mac-and-cheese and chicken nuggets. They were “lactose and tolerant” and would have dairy-free cheese, while we were addicted to the real stuff. They decorated their house to be scary on Halloween, we had some measly pumpkins on our porch. I was always a tall, pale, gangly thing, while Sam had a beautiful tan. When we got older, I’d go on to do theatre, while Sam became an incredible cross country runner. Regardless, their family felt like mine. My sister and I took refuge there one Christmas Eve because my brother had a seizure and my parents stayed with him in the hospital overnight.
I got most of the blissful, unconcerned childhood years, but by the time I was in fifth grade, I had a phone. Eventually, my days playing outside stopped. Sam and I grew apart in high school.
When reading Cool For America by Andrew Martin, I thought about its title’s significance. Martin’s characters seem to all be “well educated… but aimless, certain of their genius but chronically unable to deliver on it,” writes Matthew Schneier in his New York Times review of the collection. From Missoula to some random town in New Jersey, the location doesn’t give much to work with, as if you could close your eyes and stick a pushpin anywhere in America and get it right. Yet the characters are heavily impacted by this almost nameless scenery, the people around them, and the ruts they find themselves in. None of them feel like particularly special people or happenings. Some of them work mundane jobs or are dating people they don’t really love. Martin himself is much like his characters: anxious, hateful of his 20s, and self-deprecating. Leslie, a character in Martin’s aptly titled first novel Early Work, reappears in many of the stories in Cool For America, as she moves from New York to Missoula and learns about herself through depressing interminglings with friends and lovers. Schneier’s proposed moral of the story hits the nail on the head: “You Are Not As Special As You Think.” The America in these stories is banal. Everyday America is fucking boring.
As far as I was concerned growing up, I never thought my life was that special or interesting either. I wanted to be someone that people actually wrote about. I wanted to live in a hotel in New York like Eloise, or be the most popular girl at school, or have a cool swinging bed like Raven. I wanted to be a Disney guest star. I wanted to be a model and had Sam take very embarrassing photos of me posing pre-puberty and with braces on her mom’s iPhone that I would hate for anyone to see now.
Maybe boring is special. When reading, I realized that my own American story was reminiscent of what my parents and grandparents loved about their neighborhoods: they knew everyone, they left their doors unlocked, everyone looked out for each other. I didn’t live on an island in my neighborhood: I had a true sense of community that I have yet to find in my adult life. My story was made up of the boring happenings of the everyday, surrounded by the people who were nearby, and how we made a family, a support system, out of each other.
I don’t consider myself a patriotic person. I am ashamed of this country a lot of the time. Martin’s character Alex affectionately says, “[America] is full of cheap shit and alcoholics.” I do, however, see something worthwhile in writing my American story. Even what seemed not special holds so much worth in my adult life. It is worth writing about.