“FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE,” advised Virginia Woolf, “publish nothing before you are thirty.” F. Scott Fitzgerald felt the opposite. “Thirty,” he wrote, “the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.” Now millennials are turning 30 and face a choice: should they set sail on the edge of Woolf’s injunction and bet against a Fitzgeraldian downfall? Thirty is a borderline age, a time where things come together or fall apart, sometimes both at the same time. Woolf’s advice seems judicious, unless one happens to experience Fitzgerald’s fleeting early success. It was Fitzgerald who said there were no second acts in American life, even though most 30-year-olds are still negotiating their arcs. Thirty might be old enough to know better, but it is not young enough to settle — at least for some.

Andrew Martin’s novel Early Work is, on the surface, about a guy who, with great anguish, gradually disentangles himself from a stable relationship in favor of a relationship with someone dazzlingly less stable. It is much more than this because, every minute, you are with these people, with their flaws, their quips, and especially their books. Its major players are consistently and never pretentiously in the midst of heavy reading. Julia is an exhausted medical student, Peter is a grad school dropout teaching at a women’s correctional facility, and Leslie, on vague writing deadlines, has way too much time on her hands. Yet, at the end of the day, they are all readers. Cormac McCarthy, Robert Musil, Gabriel García Márquez, Don DeLillo, among many others, each make appearances, believably sandwiched in between drinking, sex, trying to write, and trying to live. These 30-year-olds will likely become absorbed in career or family or whatever else life may deliver; but at the time that Martin introduces them, they are poised right before these turning points, when the life of the mind and body is still an experiment.

Early Work is about the young in a constant state of quippy contradiction and desire. Thirty is supposedly the age of getting real, and Martin’s book is about what happens right before that breakthrough, if it happens at all. It makes you wince at times, but it is never boring or banal or predictable. It is stuffed with well-turned phrases and fresh observation.

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Andrew Martin frames his study of fading youth around two intertwined — and sometimes entwined — characters: Peter and Leslie. Neither is especially wise or exemplary, but they could be. They dwell in possibility. In fact, their screw-ups, we are led to believe, may augur potential wisdom after the book is over. Peter and Leslie have significant others and vague literary ambitions, but they are not quite fully committed.

Julia, Peter’s live-in for five years, is a medical student at the University of Virginia, the reason for Peter moving to Charlottesville. Brian works for an organic food nonprofit called Green Apple. Peter and Leslie are both supposedly writing, but that leaves a lot of free time, and soon after Peter meets Leslie, they spend a lot of this free time together. While their partners pursue their stable and ethical careers, Peter and Leslie invest much of their creative energies in each other. Peter is reasonably satisfied with Julia — he describes their sex life as “rigorously exploratory” — but not satisfied enough to even try to resist Leslie’s flirtations, which escalate pretty quickly:

We sat in silence for a little bit and I felt a sexual current between us, even if it was mostly coming from me. I felt a sharp urge toward possession, something that wasn’t usually prominent in my taxonomy of desire, and a quality that didn’t factor much into what I thought of as my egalitarian relationship with Julia. Right now, sitting with Leslie, I felt bereft over the fact that she wasn’t mine. […] It was devastating. Unacceptable.

At one level, this is an unremarkable story. Guy meets girl, cheats on other girl, excitement, guilt, and dishonesty follow. But it’s not the tale, it’s the teller. We are in and out of Peter’s head for much of these developments, and we experience every feeling and follow every thought that matters. We may question his judgment, but his need for passion — his need to shake things up for himself — keeps this book vital until the final sentence.

Peter is 30, and a grad school dropout from the Yale University English Department. “I knew I’d made a mistake within a week of starting classes,” he says. “Were we supposed to read these books? Were my fellow students genuine in their stupid ideas about literature?” Frustrated, Peter decides that he should write a book instead of reading those assigned to him. “Novelists don’t need PhDs,” he notes. They do need a job, however, and he takes one teaching composition classes at a local women’s prison.

Peter likes to present himself as a scholar of English literature and a writer, but we don’t know much about his calling. Peter, in fact, is a quite convincing portrait of someone who is not doing much at all:

“How’s the book going?” my cousins would ask me at the rare family gatherings at which I deigned to show my face. “Getting there,” I would say, though as anyone who’s ever pretended to be a writer knows, “the book” was really a handy metaphor for tinkering with hundreds of Word documents that bore a vague thematic resemblance to each other, but would never cohere into the, what, saga of ice and fire that they were imagining.

Leslie is on a similar track. Her fiancé is in Austin, Texas, and she is staying with her aunt in Louisa, near Charlottesville, working on a screenplay. “I figured I could maybe get some work done here,” she tells Peter and Julia when they first meet. “Of course I mostly just lie in the grass wondering whether or not I’m sweating yet, but. It’s a start.” Leslie, Peter learns, is slothful, like him. And the pheromones — sweat is everywhere in this Virginia summer novel — move the seduction along.

It makes perfect sense for Peter, a failed graduate student and unproductive writer, to seek as an anchor a partner who is practical, driven, and in a stable career, who even has more literary success (she publishes a poem, called “unreadable” by Peter during an argument). Instead, he is drawn to Leslie because she is impulsive, perhaps destructive. It’s not just that she’s the other woman; she’s more like who he would be if he had the courage. The novel moves back in time to give us some glimpses of Leslie’s past in New York, including an involvement with various members of the theater crowd — a solipsistic playwright, a generous female producer, a writer even more cynical than herself — who all send her running for the hills. Leslie is self-deprecating, uncertain, and yet compelling. She calls herself a “bum,” which means (sort of) a writer. She crashes in Peter and Julia’s living room after having too much to drink, and she makes her move on Peter the next day. When he responds, she tells him, “[Y]ou confirmed my suspicions.” Peter doesn’t know what he’s doing, but that doesn’t stop him from doing it again and again until the infidelity becomes unsustainable.

Julia hasn’t done anything to deserve this, and Peter doesn’t even try to justify his actions. Leslie is more like him: a drinker, a flirt, a wit, and someone who just might have literary talent, but she drags her feet (or says she does), helping out on a friend’s farm while officially working on a screenplay on spec. Peter’s radar is up the first time he sees her: “She looked like a wild creature that had been hastily and not entirely consensually bundled into something approximating midsummer southern chic.”

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Andrew Martin, an MFA graduate from the University of Montana, is a generation removed from the fin-de-siècle MFA students writing Lorrie Moore homages, yet you can hear echoes of her zingers throughout the novel. Early Work is wall-to-wall with erudite repartee, from bar chatter to pillow talk; it is filled with the subtleties of flirtation, the details of dissatisfaction, the ironies of miscommunication. But it is still an insulated world, populated by highly educated Americans who have not a word to say about the many elephants in the room: #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump. When someone opens a newspaper, it’s to make a glib joke:

“You know what’s a bad place? Syria.”
“Have you heard about Texas?” Gil said.
“What happened?”
“That’s it. Texas. What a shithole.”

But Martin does try to break out of his own insulation. While much of the novel is told through Peter’s point of view, there are some sections focused on Leslie, which vividly portray her as a drinker, a wisecracker, a bull in a china shop. Her destructive charisma is what draws Peter to her when he feels his own imagination stalling. She is a fellow fuckup, a kindred derelict. Their affair links them in a new, mutual fuckup, as both struggle to conceal — and justify — their infidelity, before finally recognizing that what they are doing will be a net loss for everyone.

The deception at the center of the novel is ultimately unsustainable, and things unravel accordingly. What keeps the reader engrossed is not the cheating but the writing, the author’s sharp insights into his characters. Peter has to risk something in order to gain something, but what he gains is the realization that maybe he’s really not a novelist; maybe his greatness will manifest in some wholly other way. Leslie encourages him to think positively about his book in progress: “It’s your early work, man,” she tells him. “It’s allowed to be terrible.” But in the end, it’s Leslie who we come to realize is the real writer. “It did seem possible lately […] that there was a chance she was what she’d long imagined herself to be,” Peter tells us, “one of the chosen few to whom the task of chronicling the inner life had been given.” It is Leslie, not Peter, whom we see at the end moving the blinking cursor across the screen, although we don’t know what she is writing or if it will be successful, or whether the promise of these thirtysomething people will ever be realized. “It wasn’t good,” she thinks, “but maybe it was getting better.”

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David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (2017). You can follow him on Twitter @davidmyaffe.