Martin’s fictional universe of drugs and disappointment, cleverness and self-doubt, shot through with flashes of crackling lucidity, is funny but empathetic toward its deeply flawed characters. Reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s beautiful and insightful 1992 debut, Jesus’s Son, Cool for America thrives in the same gorgeous space between chaos and contemplation. In short: Bad people can be good, and they’re generally fun to read about ... Martin is maybe at his best when wringing as much meaning as he can from the collision of East Coast manners and Montana’s rough charm ... Taut, entertaining, sharp on literature and the way we live now, Cool for America is relentlessly pleasing and keen in a way that might make you crave more from Martin on the world beyond his established territory. Everything that falls under his purview feels simultaneously familiar and utterly original.
Cool for America is animated by much the same spirit as Early Work, and undermined by its same shortcomings. Martin’s characters—the men especially, but Leslie too—tend to be well educated (he almost dares us to say overeducated) but aimless, certain of their genius but chronically unable to deliver on it ... They are often stretching for a certainty that eludes them, and Martin is good on the uneasy awareness of this ... your enjoyment of these characters will likely depend on how sympathetic you find their particular, mostly low-grade distress. Martin’s drifters are stagy in their ornamented repartee, and self-conscious about their staginess, in a way that comments upon but doesn’t dispel it, that passes for insight but is in fact just the registering of a need for insight to be slotted in. It is self-aggrandizement that recognizes itself as a weakness and then wants credit for the recognition. It verges on heterosexual camp. Every so often, however, intimations from an omniscient above puncture the preciousness of these reveries, and the collection is stronger for it ... To their credit, these stories don’t overreach to arrive at pat conclusions. Martin often winds up to a killer ending, leaving the uncertainty to linger and his characters, if not his readers, suspended mid-muck ... You feel Martin is going somewhere, and the prospect is tantalizing. One looks forward to 'Later Work.'