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A Criminal Personality Rationalized and Romanticized

A case study that goes unrecognized in the new novel "Groundskeeping."

Key points

  • People who have a criminal personality constantly deceive others.
  • What seem to be positive personality features can distract others from recognizing criminality.
  • If a criminal doesn't have enough excuses, people sympathetic to him offer more.

As I began reading “Groundskeeping,” Lee Cole’s first novel, I found it difficult to put down. My enjoyment of it had little to do with the intriguing and positive promotional blurbs.

Reviewers describe “Groundskeeping” as “a wrenching examination of class differences" that addresses “the painful passage between youth and adulthood,” and serves up a powerful “story about young writers in love,” and is a “a forensic examination of our toxic politics.” Hamilton Cain of The New York Times stated, “It’s a thrill – a relief – to read a writer who approaches his male characters with generosity and intuition.”

As a forensic psychologist, what stood out to me was the unfolding of a criminal personality in Owen, the central male character who is portrayed sympathetically. An aspiring writer, Owen falls in love with Alma, a resident teaching fellow at Ashby College near Louisville, Kentucky. Owen and Alma come from very different backgrounds, the former having grown up in rural Kentucky, the latter being the daughter of doctors who fled their native war-torn Bosnia to settle in suburban Washington, D.C.

While Owen was living a peripatetic existence using drugs and spending money he did not have, Alma had a sense of purpose. She told Owen, “I wasn’t passing any bongs in high school. I was prepping for the SAT.” She was admitted to three Ivy League schools and graduated from Princeton. Already a published author, she received an advance on a new book project.

Alma genuinely cares about other people and shows it. In contrast to Owen, Alma is proud of her parents and maintains a good relationship with them. Although Owen expresses nostalgia for his childhood, he continues to seethe with contempt for his family and for rural Kentucky where he grew up.

Owen is an adventurer and excitement seeker. As the novel begins, he is employed as a “groundskeeper” at Ashby College and is enrolled in one English class. Self-absorbed and perennially discontent, Owen has moved from place to place with what he termed “a history of shitty odd jobs.” Heavily in debt, he has never had his own home and has lived for months in his car. Telling Alma that his drug use has been “tame,” he acknowledges heavy drinking and using marijuana, cocaine, and even heroin. When Alma asks why drugs remained part of his life for so long, he replies, “Because it felt good.”

Owen is all about what he feels like doing at the moment. He cozies up to and uses family members when it suits him. On occasion, he plops down on a couch to visit his grandfather whose main activity is sitting in a chair watching John Wayne movies. He does little to actually help him or make his life better. When “Pop” asks him to trim a maple tree in the backyard, Owen, who trims trees for a living, dismisses his request, telling him, “It doesn’t even need it.” Not long after, Pop dies outside in frigid temperatures while attempting to cut tree branches. When Owen’s mother tries to contact him to break this news, Owen ignores her fourteen calls and sets his cell phone on “do not disturb,” because he doesn’t want to be bothered by whatever she has to say.

Owen is a parasite, always ready to take, while Alma is a giver. She lets Owen move into her quarters at the college’s guest house. When he orders an $80 bottle of wine, she pays. When Alma invites Owen to accompany her on a visit to her parents, she offers to buy his plane ticket. Embarrassed to accept, Owen hits his father up for a loan. His dad replies, “I just don’t know if I can keep enabling you to fail” and bemoans his son’s “aimlessness.” Owen’s inner response before hanging up on his father: “All I could think of were angry, vicious things.” Determined to obtain the funds for the plane ticket, he steals his grandfather’s treasured antique bayonet and pawns it for $250, referring to it as “only a piece of metal.” Later, Pop misses the bayonet, but Owen, the thief, does not fess up.

Owen rarely has paid his own way. Despite his full-time job as a tree trimmer, he has just $100 in the bank. He complains that he has always done “manual labor for miserable wages.” When he competes with a co-worker in applying for a promotion to supervisor, he does not get it. He continues spending beyond his means. He and Alma order from a tasting menu – “seventy bucks a pop, money I don’t really have.”

Owen is always ready to criticize. When he first sees the neighborhood where Alma’s parents live, he thinks, “The houses projected a kind of cleanliness that bordered on sterility.” Schadenfreude, a Louisville bar that he frequents at night, comes in for criticism because its daytime patrons are
"not hip.” He comments, “In the unforgiving light of day, you could see how dirty the bar was.” Although he takes Alma for a meal at Cracker Barrel, a popular southern chain restaurant, Owen denigrates it as “commodified nostalgia used to sell gimmicky bullshit to octogenarians.”

Pop’s son, Cort, who rarely emerges from his room, becomes exasperated enough to tell Owen, “You think everything’s about you.” That observation is on target. Owen feels entitled and expects others to accommodate him. He muses, “I wondered when in my life I’d be entitled to call a place my own.” He is chronically angry at a world that he finds unsatisfactory. He reflects, “Anger alone was easy. It was cheap and lazy.”

Among his many resentments is his antipathy toward Alma’s parents. He concludes that, despite their going out of their way to please him, “They don’t think I’m good enough for her.” Owen accuses his own mother of being “lukewarm” toward Alma even after she and his stepfather had embraced her and even self-consciously corrected their own grammar while doing so. Alma is sometimes charmed but sometimes repulsed when she hears Own’s invective directed toward his native Kentucky and what he calls “rural South grotesqueries.”

For months, Alma has watched Owen writing detailed notes. Finally, he allows her to read what he has been working on. Devastated and furious at being “the object of his art,” Alma exclaims, “It’s my material. You used my life.” She accuses Own of “plagiarism” and tells him, “You get to be the hero. You felt comfortable making me look like a “stuck-up spoiled rich girl…the rich girl that you go to defile. Is that what gets you off?”

When Alma decides to accept a faculty position at Ashby College teaching creative writing in the English department, Owen is perplexed. He cannot understand why she wants to remain in Kentucky rather than settle in a place more glamorous like New York City. Alma says to him, “Building a life doesn’t sound so bad. You have to start somewhere.” She might as well have been speaking in a foreign tongue.

When Owen is offered a fellowship by the English Department at Florida State University in Tallahassee, he is disappointed. He had applied unsuccessfully for other fellowships that would allow him to live in more exciting places such as New York, San Francisco, or Europe. He even applied in Slovakia “which held the promise of adventure.” The book concludes with Owen reneging on what, at most, was a reluctant commitment to Florida State. At the airport, he does not board the plane. The book ends there.

“Groundskeeping” remains absorbing until the end as the author offers superb descriptions of people, places, and cultures. However, the criminal personality of Owen seems to be unrecognized or rationalized. Instead, he is portrayed with sympathy. No matter how one may try to pretty him up, Owen is a liar, a user, a thief, a narcissist, and a chronic substance abuser. He perceives himself as the hub of a wheel around which everything revolves. Little seems acceptable to Owen, a malcontent who demands that others meet his requirements.


Lee Cole. Groundskeeping, NY: Knopf, 2022.