Leaving the Atocha Station is a bildungsroman and meditation and slacker tale fused by a precise, reflective and darkly comic voice … Adam Gordon, a poet, having bluffed his way into a fellowship in Madrid, makes friends, struggles with Spanish, smokes hash, wanders around, writes poetry, doubts poetry and has two low-energy love affairs. But the real action of the novel is interior … Adam Gordon is comically incompetent, getting lost in Spain’s history, language and occasionally its streets. Yet Spaniards react to Gordon’s foolishness with amused mercy … The ultimate product of Gordon’s success is the novel itself. It is also a strengthening poetry that we rarely see but intuitively, like the Spaniards in the novel, admire.
Adam—at once ideological and post-ideological, vaguely engaged and profoundly spectatorial, charming and loathsome—is a convincing representative of twenty-first-century American Homo literatus … The book’s persistent question is: If Adam Gordon were able to summon himself into authenticity, would there be anything to see? Are we in fact constituted by our inauthenticities? … But, if Adam stopped pretending that he was only pretending to be a poet, he would have to write some poems, and confront questions of talent and of vocation … Lerner is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and ‘conflict,’ fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life.
As in a video game, it’s not exactly what happens that counts: what’s important is how deeply you’re drawn into the world of the game, how transfixed you become. Adam is drawn deeply into his new world, and into his own thoughts. So are we: there’s tremendous verisimilitude in this short novel, and a pace that feels oddly familiar … mere moments after the transports of art have been acknowledged as possible, the idea that they might lead anywhere good – or bring any moral uplift or change in character – is quickly dismissed. There’s no evidence here that art, and therefore poetry, can save us … His anxiety and poses have just been a way of elaborating and extending himself, a drug more potent than his pot or his pills. Adam is not a poem. He’s a person. The American ideal of freedom and self-invention has its limits; he’s a product of his context and class.