Author: AndrewMartin
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

ISBN: 978-0-37414-612-2

Andrew Martin's novel Early Work was a New York Times "Notable Book of 2018": "This marvelous debut novel, about a male writer's romantic entanglements, is like a restaurant dish that presents multiple preparations of a vegetable on the same plate—'beets, three ways'—to capture its essence. Early Work is books, three ways."

The narrator, Peter, an MFA graduate in his early 30s, has followed Julia his girlfriend of five years to Charlottesville where she is attending the University of Virginia's medical school. They'd met as undergraduates at Columbia, and Martin's description of her is a nice example of his writing and an illustration of the narrator's perceptions and attitudes:

". . . she was brilliant, the smartest person in the class, the smartest person I'd met at school, the smartest person I'd met. She was five foot nothing but looked taller because of her long neck and excellent posture. Under that neck, she was all breasts and hips—there was no room for anything else. She had long, curly blond hair, colored, I learned later, a few shades lighter than it was naturally, and defiantly puffy cheeks that went from a default rosy pink to bright red when she was even mildly embarrassed or drunk. She sang in an early music group, despite the fact that she was a half-Jewish atheist. She was in it for the tunes."

Peter and Julia have rented a house in Virginia, acquired a dog, and Peter has found a job as an adjunct writing instructor in a community college with an extra gig, teaching a class in a woman's prison. They have a companionable sex life, watch television, go to the movies, live almost like young (childless) marrieds. Julia works six days a week; Peter tries half-heartedly to write. 

In Chapter 1 they go to a party at the gigantic house in horse country of a recent acquaintance where on page 4 he meets Leslie: "In that first long look couldn't help but notice that she didn't seem to belong in her delicate flowered sundress, that her strong, tanned arms and shoulders were positively bursting out of it . . . She looked like a wild creature that had been hastily and not entirely consensually bundled into something approximating midsummer southern chic." On page 93 he and Leslie finally have idyllic, romantic sex. 

With the casual sex, the drinking, the vaping of pot, the irony, the knowingness, I suspect Early Work is a faithful picture of a certain slice of young America and their attitude toward life: " . . . the gaping maw of the future suddenly [was] before me. I spent so much time on the daily logistics of just staying alive that I often went weeks without remembering that I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I knew, because I'd been told, that passivity was not a quality to aspire to. But I thought it was possible that there was some secret nobility, a logic, in letting the tides of life just knock one around, in keeping the psychic ledger balanced."

I've quoted so much of the text because Martin's sentences, paragraphs, and dialogue (take my word on the dialogue) are so apt—intelligent, astute,  clever. The novel held my interest all the way through and I enthusiastically recommend it for the language and perceptions. The story, not so much: boy cheats on his long-time girlfriend, takes up with a provocative if vexing woman, and follows her to Montana. One could read Early Work as the narrator's 240-page justification for his actions, actions that many readers will find inexcusable anyway.

I was also struck by the fact that Julia is the only character in the novel who seems to have a goal or a direction in life. She wants to be a doctor and, from what we're given, we believe she will become one even if it means graduating with a mountain of debt. Peter, as quoted above, has no idea what to do with his life other than drink, get stoned, have sex. Leslie, like Peter, is an author manqué, although by the end of the book, Martin hints that Leslie in Montana may actually be able to publish something. Conceivably, it's the book we've just read.