Under the Small Lights

By John Cotter

Miami University Press
June 2010, Paperback, 189 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4507-0091-7

Under the Small Lights

Reviewed by Adam Gallari

Co-winner of the 2009 Miami University Press Novella Contest, John Cotter’s debut Under the Small Lights is a wonderfully scathing and esoteric book that attempts to map the failed ambition of a close group of friends whose incestuous and competing desires ultimately lead to their catastrophic downfalls. Cotter’s book is a commentary on artistry, and an examination of the epidemic of “artistic romance” that has infected many contemporary young people, who appear more interested in masquerading the part of the literary ingénue than actually slogging through the mired trenches that so often lead one through a confusing maze of futility. At its core, Under the Small Lights is exactly that, a meditation on futility, failure and the death of dreams.

Cotter’s narrator, Jack Ahern, is a stunted pretender to many thrones, one who at times almost recalls a talentless Tom Ripley. Jack wishes to usurp the role of husband to Corinna, his best friend Paul’s wife, and also the role of “serious artist” occupied by his faux-friend Bill, a shady character who continually dips in and out of the narrative, and whose appearances, no matter how seemingly innocuous, always carry with them sinister undertones. After the sudden wedding of his two friends leaves Jack a third wheel, he proclaims, “We had been the only people in the garden of the world, then I was east of Eden.” While such grandiose statements could risk a sentimentality soaked in an ennui-driven coyness, Cotter is careful to limit both his academic references and his characters’ feelings of self-loathing malaise, so that they continue to carry with them enough weight to both enhance and reveal the situation.

Jack is an obnoxious character, puerile, grating and, many times, borderline pathetic, but Cotter should be applauded for understanding this. Rather than dwelling in the solipsistic revelries of Jack, Cotter propels the narrative with caustic dialogue passages during which his characters spout on about life, literature, and the pursuit of sexual relationships that either buck or conform to the norms of their society. Under the Small Lights is a highly allusive novel, one that  will cause even the most erudite of readers to pause so that they might fact-check and (re)acquaint themselves with the many references to the literary figures of old that pepper the novella’s pages.  At times, this literary name dropping almost recalls Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, but here references to Chesterton and Co. are replaced by philosophical homage to Thoreau and Beckett. Unlike Fitzgerald, Cotter is not guilty of authorial narcissism. Each time Burroughs or Emerson or T.S. Elliot appear it is less an author trying to showcase his knowledge than his tongue-in-cheek mockery of all the sad, literary young men who have become so cliché in recent years.

Ultimately, though Jack serves as the novella’s mouthpiece, its main driving force is Corinna, a wonderful vixen cast in the mold of Kate Croy and Bret Ashley, whose sexual allure and backhanded dealings carry such a malicious innocence that the reader is neither quite able to fully love nor hate her. As nefarious as she is enrapturing, Corinna’s zeal serves as the pivot around which all of Jack’s desires to satisfy both his personal and sexual ambition revolve. Each of his dilettante-ish efforts in love or poetry is a  play for her affection, an affection split equally between his two closest male friends. What is most intriguing, and indeed most thrilling, in Cotter’s debut is the way in which Cotter navigates both the homosocial and homoerotic elements that inform the relationships between Jack and Paul and Bill. In describing Paul, prior to introducing him to Corinna, Jack’s ebullience almost  feels like the gushing of a young man in love, incapable of articulating anything but the best in the being about to be presented for review: “That October morning before anything happened… she didn’t know Paul, had only heard me go on about him,” with all the zeal of a man hell-bent on sabotaging his own chances of love. Later, in his petulance, Jack lunges at any opportunity to wound his former friend, reminding him of Corinna’s past lovers, pleading that it is truly him that she loves:

“The first time I met her,” I spoke slowly, “she was with Bill. And so she couldn’t have been any more inaccessible to me. But you know, I kept thinking, why Bill and not me? I mean we’re basically the same.” My last few sips overshot and the gin was ahead of me now.

“You’re nothing the same,” Paul said.

“She loves me, though. She’s told you she loves me. And she fucks these other guys and I think, why not just call me?”

It is this pathetic self-rationalizing that dominates Jack’s world view, one made all the more ironic by the fact that it is Paul with whom he exchanges a brief interlude of sexual dalliance on a boardwalk:

Paul smiled and grabbed me by the shirtfront and stuck his tongue in my mouth, rolling it around. I ran my hand back and forth over his hair like an ape. We were both, I think, watching them out of the sides of our eyes. We got the tsk-tsk we wanted, bad heads turned, hurrying past.

I threw my arm around him in the breezy summer afternoon and we walked past the old men, past the lamp shop. Some waist-high girls were giggling by the monument.
“Jack,” he said. “I’m a married man.”
“Right,” I said, pulling my arm away, “where’s the sanctity?”
He clucked and shook his head.

However, Jack’s ultimate fallout rests truly with Bill, and is likewise brought about by Jack’s incessant desire to, as Bill proclaims, steal Bill’s own life from him. When Bill can finally take no more of Jack’s incessant mirroring he explodes, “This is my life.… This isn’t material.’” The material of other lives, under the guise of transcending “the mundane world of people who looked at their shoes all day,” is what Jack craves, yet he is fated to be second rate, a bit player more at home in acting parts created for him by others and never serving as the master of his own universe. Near the end of the novella, Cotter writes of Jack, “I scanned the city for Bill, still not believing he wasn’t there, hurt and giddy. A chance to be Bill without Bill there, misplaying him.” A not so subtle reminder that the roles we are cursed with often do not complement the grandeur assigned to us by our own minds.

Although it is a compelling, witty and philosophical read, Cotter’s book is not without its faults. The structuring of the chapters in Under the Small Lights and the anachronistic chronology occasionally become more confusing than need be, slowing down an otherwise fluid story. The reader is forced to reorient himself in the narrative, and while Cotter’s dialogue is snappy and well conceived, he too often indulges it with “ums” and “likes” and ellipses that read like an author trying to force home an authenticity that is already there. However, what is most frustrating with Cotter’s dialogue is that many places lack the necessary dialogue tags, without which his rapid-fire exchanges become muddled, and the urgency of otherwise breathtaking moments is lost as the reader is unsure  who is on the receiving and giving ends of his incisive barbs.

These issues aside, Cotter has managed an impressive debut in Under the Small Lights. He has crafted a world both real and pitiless, in which people find themselves paused at disillusioned crossroads where dream and reality no longer align the way they once did. His universe is populated by men and women who both know and love each other so deeply that they are only capable of causing each other great pain, and Cotter skillfully navigates their unknown realms of friendship and love. His narrative probes deeply into the dark underbelly of the human capacity for cruelty, and he is unafraid to linger in that darkness, those hidden spaces we often relegate to the nether regions of our subconscious when we choose to believe that we are, innately, good people. Under the Small Lights is a scary examination of the capacity for rueful malevolence in all of us, of how the personal is informed by the social, of how, as Jack puts it, “[the] orgy impulse can be something other than showing off.  It can be the illusion of collective love.”