Under the Small Lights

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This prize-winning novella takes a mature, nuanced look at a group of friends trying to navigate the transition from adolescence into adulthood.

John Cotter’s Under the Small Lights is a journey back to that time in one’s life when nothing was yet decided. You hadn’t yet ended up with anyone, or spent decades in the same job, or the same place. In this novella, winner of the 2009 Miami University Press Novella Prize, Cotter explores the lives of a group of smart, artistic friends as they step from stone to stone away from adolescence into the undiscovered continent of the rest of their lives.

Cotter doesn’t give a lot of background to these characters; rather he shows their interactions in swiftly paced scenes that allude to what came before and where they may end up after. They hang out with friends, make art, discuss big ideas, and endeavor to leave something new in the world. Jack, the story’s narrator, wants to be the next great American poet. He and Bill are writing a play together—perhaps emulating their literary heroes, they write on a typewriter and don’t get started until they’ve drunk whiskey and popped some pills. They pull random books off their shelves to find lines to use in the play. Bill suggests, “We’ll get a bunch of texts together and cut them up and make an ur-text.” When they hit a writing block, they lug the typewriter to Walden Pond. In the middle of winter. And somehow lose it in the snow.

While this pair’s inexperience and immaturity can be exasperating, the prose in which Cotter writes about their artistic struggles is simple and beautiful. After some time in the winter woods trying to write, Jack is unable to type and notices that “[t]he cold that had settled in my hand for twenty minutes was reaching up my arms. I felt it blush in my spine.” The author conveys the frustration of creative work accurately: “I stared at the typewriter. I couldn’t make something happen.”

Bill and Jack are young enough to be fearless. They know all the rules but want to test them out and discover what they believe without just blindly inheriting the world. In an argument about a scene they’re writing, Bill asks:

“Remember Chekhov and the shotgun?”

“Fuck those rules. Who made that rule?”

“Chekhov.”

“Who said that things had to have a certain structure? How about new forms? Plays with guns over the mantelpiece and they never go off. Storms where no one learns anything. Poems that don’t begin.”

John Cotter

Throughout Under the Small Lights, Cotter puts Jack in situations where he tries to challenge rules and rebel against received wisdom, including a night when he and his friends Paul and Corinna sleep together. Cotter’s writing about sex is charged with emotion and sensory experiences, and never says more than it needs to. “I don’t know how but we were all on the bed and my mouth was on her again,” Jack describes. “I could smell her thickly and I felt her breath go sharp.”

After this one night, Jack is left out of the threesome as Corinna and Paul become a couple. Jack begs Paul for another chance with Corinna and reveals the depths of his desperation:

To Paul’s small credit, he was in a position to say any number of things next. From You’ve Had Your Chance to She Doesn’t Want You to Which Of Us Is Fucking Her to She’s All I’ve Wanted to Don’t Kid Yourself to You’re Not Man Enough to You Think She Is Someone She Is Not to Why Should You Have Everything And I Have Nothing to She Chose Me Not You She Chose Me.

Even after she’s married, Jack continues to pursue Corinna. “What the fuck is marriage anyway but an ornamental restraining order?” he asks. Bill serves as the voice of reason once again, admonishing Jack, “Admit it. You’re in love with both of them and you wish things were just the way they were. You wish you all lived together. It doesn’t work that way, though. People can’t live that way.”

It’s painful to watch these characters grow disappointed by their personal limitations as well as society’s, yet there is also something sweet and vulnerable in the experiences Cotter describes. These late-adolescents are trying on adulthood—working their first jobs, throwing their first dinner parties, buying alcohol legally—while also reveling in their youth. In a local wine and cheese shop, they chase each other through the aisles in a contest to find the worst smelling cheese: “Matrons and tan old men avoided staring as we scuttled around the place… I tried to sneak up on Paul with the same wedge but he saw me coming and dodged me, nearly hurling himself into the limburger. My fingers reeked, reminding me I’d touched something that came from an animal.”

I spent my early twenties haunting the same bookstores and cafes in Boston as Jack does, trying to be a writer. Like Jack, I could be insufferable at times. With a fresh nose piercing, chain-smoking over a mix of Alanis Morrisette, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana, I talked in circles about all my hard life choices—where to live (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, or Eugene), which guy to date (one summer, I strung along four at once), what to do for money while I wrote the book that would make me rich and famous (teaching or stocking shelves). I was all promise and passion, but too inexperienced to comprehend the gulf between my ambitions and my skills. I never once considered how privileged I was even to have these choices, to be able to ask the question Who do I want to be and what do I want to do in the world?

I wasn’t initially eager to revisit that time in my life, but what’s terrific about Under the Small Lights is that Cotter’s novella demonstrates a maturity that is beyond the characters who populate it. He writes with insight, nuance, and respect for the complexity of these young people’s lives. The prose is lyrical and lucid; the scenes are powerful and vivid. Cotter’s novella—that in-between container that is neither a short story nor a novel—shows what can be accomplished by this form, underscoring how these characters exist in their own limbo: neither children nor adults, caught on the threshold of the rest of their lives.


Grace Talusan teaches writing at Tufts University and Grub Street. More from this author →