A drug-ridden handshake

By A Contributor

LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION. Ben Lerner. CoffeeHouse Press, 2011, 181 pages, paperback.

Dick Seaton Contributing Writer

Ben Lerner is a native of Topeka. He is the author of three books of poetry, one of which was a finalist for the National Book Award. This is his first novel, and it’s a dandy.

Adam, the narrator, is himself, a young poet living in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship and struggling to mature as an artist. Constantly observing himself observe the world and people around him, he tends to doubt and question his every move.

His insights are often brilliant ones, but drugs, legal and illegal, plus tobacco and alcohol sustain them. He cannot connect effectively with others, even the girlfriend he sleeps with, at least in the beginning.

“That I smoked hash with tobacco was critical during this phase of my project, although I was resolved never to smoke a cigarette again after leaving Spain, and so smoked with particular abandon, critical because the cigarette or spliff was an indispensable technology, a substitute for speech in social situations, a way to occupy the mouth and hands when alone, a deep breathing technique that rendered exhalation material, a way to measure and/or pass the time.”

The fledgling poet’s alienation comes across in countless ways: his inability to understand Spanish, his falsification of his family history, his conversational style, which he hopes will avoid communication and protect him from its consequences.

He walks away from the scene of the Madrid train bombings in 2004-hence the title-and goes back to his apartment to read about it online, rather than staying to help.

One of the joys of the book is its language, which Lerner handles with a poet’s deft hand. But he also holds you with a novelist’s narrative skill. And the subtlety with which he portrays the narrator’s interior struggle is truly extraordinary.

For example, Adam and his girlfriend lack a common language fluency, so he notes that, “Except for our most basic exchanges, pass me that, what time is it,  and so on, our conversation largely consisted of my gesturing in response to that. In this, my project’s second phase, Isabel assigned profound meaning, assigned a plurality of possible profound meanings, to my fragmentary speech, intuiting from those fragments depths of insight and latent eloquence, and because she projected what she thought she discovered, she experienced, I like to think, an intense affinity for the workings of my mind.”

At 32, this Kansas writer has produced an outstanding novel. It was cited as one of the best books of the year by “The New Yorker,” “The Guardian,” “The New Statesman,” “The Wall Street Journal, “The Boston Globe,” and “New York Magazine.”

As Kansans, we should get acquainted with him.

Dick Seaton is a local lawyer

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