John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010. Previously, his short fiction and poetry had appeared in Volt, The Lifted Brow, Lost, and New Genre, among other spots. A founding editor at Open Letters Monthly, John has published critical work on contemporary novelists, poets and translators.
“Under the Small Lights is a book to be savored, and John Cotter is an exciting new voice in contemporary fiction.”
“John Cotter’s Under the Small Lights is the kind of book I always look for and rarely find: a mellow meditation on friendship and romance and the romance of friendship told in prose straightforward and lovely.”
A couple years ago, a friend had told me that her friend, John, had a book coming out and that, since we’re both writers, we should probably know each other. Within a few weeks, a different friend, also acquainted with John, told me that I should probably know him because we do similar things — we both write fiction and used to (sort of) want to be actors, the parenthetical being 100% mine and only in hindsight — and by the way, had I heard that John had a book coming out?
After scoping out each other’s respective websites and exchanging a few brief e-mails, we finally met and he later read a couple sections from that oft-mentioned, then forthcoming book, Under the Small Lights, at the reading series I host. The whole room was in thrall while he read two scenes that had us thinking just enough about the characters and the book itself before we all started thinking about ourselves, which is admittedly what any group of young people will do.
That Cotter sets Under the Small Lights in Boston is not happenstance. Boston is a college town filled with young people and Under the Small Lights is a story of youth. It’s about Jack, a would-be playwright in his early twenties, and his handful of close friends who spend a couple years pretending to be adult enough to make all those adult decisions that compromise what we want with what we’re told we’re supposed to want, equating sex with marriage and money with education (and maybe even hard work). The book moves through a series of scenes that surface like memories, wandering the way our attention spans and affections will, from friend to friend until our rash decisions blast everything away, or until we have to make new friends or risk the inevitable outcome that accompanies emulating/lusting after/emphatically loving your friends.
Cotter’s characters remind me of my own experiences in an invasively tight-knit group. We were downright incestuous, unapologetically so, and while we all fell deeply in love with ourselves and each other every day, we felt obligated to regularly be the selves we put on for others. We assumed that everyone expected that kind of consistency, but it’s a folly of youth to think that a person is an individual. We each held communities within ourselves, including who we were before, after, between, and without our friends. It’s a balancing act that almost everyone I know has tried to strike during the dicey transition from adolescence to adulthood and it’s no different for Jack or Paul and Corinna, the married couple who Jack loves both collectively and individually. Although Jack is admittedly the most insecure of the group, through his conversations with Paul, Cotter reveals that performance is part of everyone’s growth spurt, quite possibly because it allows us to figure out who we don’t want to be:
“Does Corinna seem happy?”
I felt the way I usually did pressed to understand someone else’s feelings, hopeless.
“She’s twenty and she lives at her mother’s house. I don’t know. I think she’s found you and she loves you. I think she’s waiting for your life to begin.”
He nodded. “She’s lazy,” he said and smiled, realizing he was being too hard on her. “Well, she has to finish school.”
“What about you? Ever think about trying again?”
“I drive up to a house,” [Paul] said, closing the book, “and put out my cigarette, check my teeth in the mirror, you know how I do, and by the time I get to the front door, I’m there only for them. I’m whoever they want me to be… It’s deeper than acting. No offense. I really do want to make them happy, to say what they want to hear.”
Scenes like this one are familiar for their honesty, even if they’re words that my friends and I were never brave enough to say out loud. That Cotter lets his characters be so brave is their saving grace. What might otherwise be construed as a group of selfish kids is instead a group of self-aware kids, who are easier to relate to and easier to love.