Bastad Seal of Approval: David Crouse’s COPY CATS

Write what you know.

This is the gospel preached by creative writing teachers the world over. It is the regurgitated soundbite provided by best selling authors when asked to offer advice to the up and coming writer. But it is also a credo that, when taken to its extreme, can limit the creative prospects of a budding young talent. Too often the novice (and even his literary cousin, the lazy old pro) limits himself to tales about artists and writers, about professors and students, about creative, misunderstood intellectuals sipping Merlot at dinner parties whilst troubled by matters no more dramatic than whether or not they?ll get tenure, than whether or not they?ll get away with sleeping with their secretary. In short, the novice writer too often restricts his dramatis personae to the privileged, educated subculture to which he himself belongs, and forgets that there is a whole other world out there, waiting to be explored—a world populated by undereducated, thoroughly average people who hide their remarkable stories behind unassuming veneers that only a truly dedicated wordwright could ever crack.  And so, the general reader is left with a sense that her own story is not fit to be told, not worth being told. She rarely ventures into the realm of literary fiction, sticking instead to the mysteries and fantasies in whose pages she can truly lose herself, feeling as if her own true story is one that will never be told.

In his refreshingly unique debut, Copy Cats (The University of Georgia Press, 2005), David Crouse, a professor of creative writing at Chester College of New England, successfully bucks this trend. In the first line of the first story of the collection, a copy shop patron nicknamed Yorick tells an overworked and undercaffeinated clerk that, “There are real stories in this world,” and it seems that Crouse himself feels charged with presenting to his reader just this sort of tale. Throughout the eight pieces included here, Crouse delves into the lives of college dropouts, prostitutes, and junior executives, steering well clear of the sort of intellectual-centric mundanity explored far too often in the pages of his contemporaries. He creates memorable, sympathetic characters out of potentially forgettable and unsympathetic archetypes. And he grounds them in time and space with solid yet selective details, setting their lives in context without ever over-muddying the waters of his crisply drawn milieu.

It is said of good writers that they are first and foremost good observers. But, with Copy Cats, David Crouse proves he is far more than that. He is not just an observer, but an explorer. Like an archaeologist, he mines the vast unmapped landscape of American life in the 21st century, probing for the greatest stories yet untold.

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