The Necessity of Empathy in Lee Cole’s Groundskeeping

Election years are always tumultuous, but the weeks and months leading to the 2016 election were especially harrowing and polarizing. Relationships were tested and, if worn too frail, the proceeding dissolution amongst family and friends was an all-too-real concept. In his debut novel, Groundskeeping, author Lee Cole is able to capture that nuanced authenticity, depicting the genuine struggle between loving those close to you while still accepting them, if not entirely their beliefs and choices. Of course, it’s not strictly politics we’re talking about here. Issues of class, race, love, and navigating the ups and downs of this thing called life are woven within the 324 pages of this character-driven story.   

Owen Callahan, now in his late twenties, is back in Kentucky after piddling away the last few years, jumping from one job to the next, experimenting with a “semi-serious” drug problem, drinking, and – perhaps the impetus that drives him to Louisville to live in his grandfather’s basement – a couple of months of homelessness and sleeping in his car. A new job as a groundskeeper at Ashby, a private college in Kentucky, affords him the opportunity to take a free class, which brings him one step closer to his goal of becoming a writer. It’s through this job that he meets James, a coworker who evolves into a friend and touchstone throughout the book, and Rando, a former alcoholic who has worked for Ashby groundskeeping for over a decade and serves as an antagonizing force with all of his conspiracy theories and anti-establishment views.

Although James and Rando are important characters in Groundskeeping, they are only tertiary characters in terms of the main character’s existence. As this work focuses more on people and relationships to ensnare the reader with their realistic impressions and interpretations of life rather than actual plot or climactic action, we need to learn more about who is in Owen’s life. For instance, Owen’s grandfather, a former army man and Civil War enthusiast, is the heart and soul that keeps Owen rooted to Kentucky. Their quiet interludes of watching westerns or eating McDonald’s may not seem like much, but those are the moments that both men take comfort in. Conversely, Owen’s uncle Cort is an opinionated, Trump-supporting fifty-two-year-old who suffered injuries in a car accident decades earlier, leaving him unable to provide and care for himself independently. While his political affiliations and unapologetic sexism and racism rub Owen the wrong way, it’s Cort’s tragic yet thought-provoking question, “Do you think I wanted to live this life?” that ultimately forces Owen to think of others’ situations with more sensitivity – forces him to be more human.  

But, of course, no coming-of-age story would be complete without a love interest, which is where Alma Hadzic, the 26-year-old writer-in-residence who was born in Bosnia but raised in an upper-middle-class home in an affluent neighborhood in Virginia, comes into the picture. It is upon their introduction, on the first page of the novel, that Cole so precisely establishes the heart of Groundskeeping: “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.”

Kentucky is a character unto itself, and Cole’s beautiful precision in relaying its landscape is embedded throughout. Flip to any page, and you’ll see words illustrating the urban life of Louisville, domesticated life on campus or in Owen’s family home, and especially the pastoral elements: “We left early on a low-skied morning, taking I-65 through the land smoothed out to corn stubble and fields of winter grass… Weak sunlight had begun to sift down, and when we crossed the Green River, which really was green, its banks choked with brambles and frail trees, we could just make out the stacks of the coal-burning Paradise Fossil Plant in the distance.”

Likewise, music and writing have their own crucial responsibilities to fill in Groundskeeping. While one could argue that music is a point of introduction, an initiating camaraderie amongst the characters, including Alma and Owen, then the same would have to be argued that writing is a contributing factor to their downfall. During a scene in Owen’s writing class, “Jungle Narratives,” the professor details what sort of information is relevant to include when writing a story – from the color of the protagonist’s shirt to the fine minutiae in each scene, for example. Owen has the habit of using every piece of his life as material for writing, including the intimacies between himself and Alma, his parents, and even Alma’s parents; in fact, after he met Alma’s family and she met his, it is his writing about it that leads to an unraveling of sorts. For any artist, everyday life is fodder for the next page (certainly an interesting fact considering Cole’s background as a graduate from the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop), but when two writers are living side-by-side, it can create friction and entitlement as to who gets which anecdotes, and this tension ultimately dictates the future of Owen and Alma’s relationship. While Alma needs validation and recognition to feel successful in her work, Owen needs to write life as he saw it and all experiences were up for grabs – neither one understands this about the other.

In the end, both Owen and Alma have to make the choice that is best for their careers rather than their relationship – it is real life, after all. Still, the empathy and sensitivity they demonstrate for one another shows remarkable maturity on Cole’s part. This book makes space for human errors, but it also encourages its characters (and readers) to take responsibility and do better if another chance comes along – to view the world from someone else’s eyes and experiences.

Groundskeeping is a successful study of the human condition and underscores the relevance of both empathy and curiosity. There are some uncomfortable sections, but these spots urge readers to ask the hard questions, to find the answers, and to make educated choices based on thoughtful reflections. Cole succeeds at unveiling the depths of not only his characters, but the relationships they are trying to maintain. He helps address and shed light on the sensitive subjects society has been facing for centuries, but especially those issues plaguing us in this era – a necessary thing to do. 

By Lee Cole
Alfred A. Knopf
Published March 1, 2022