The irony of Benjamin Obler’s debut novel Javascotia is that the very aspects that made it seem so promising a literary debut — a novel about coffee! In Glasgow! With sexy art students! — are, in fact, amongst its most negligible qualities. Apart from the descriptions of java, that is.
Melvin Podorski is a young American and coffee aficionado who comes to Scotland hoping to open a branch of US chain “Burback’s”, and Obler’s obvious love for coffee becomes a second, parallel journey: a sort of glorious epicurean landscape that Melvin must navigate: “These were my remembrances of that American elixir, that bitter pick-me-up, the true breakfast of champions… In the black grounds, in the smell of roasted beans…”
The descriptions of coffee amount to more than indulgent gastronomical flourish, however. Melvin is also fleeing his Chicago home, where divorce, unpleasantness and the crushing boredom of suburbia await, and he uses coffee as a catalyst for his adventure.
In this sense, Javascotia is like a great many novels — and a pretty good example, at that — which track the progression of a life in need of escape. Unfortunately, Obler gives Podorski a past that is much more interesting than his present — that is to say, the scenes which take place in the author’s native land are far more enjoyable.
In Glasgow, both Obler and Podorski feel a bit too much like tourists. Locations are obligingly name-checked, and there is a decent stab made at Scots dialect, but not particularly convincingly, and not with the natural flair for dialogue that Obler demonstrates elsewhere. The Glasgow passages never quite descend into a Da Vinci Code-esque maelstrom of cultural anachronisms and stilted local slang, but nor do they really do the rest of novel much justice.
Still, Obler seems keen to stress that this isn’t just a story about one thing (coffee) or another (Glasgow), and Podorski and the orbiting members of his life — the sexy art student aside, who is neither particularly appealing nor well developed — are depicted with enough honesty and devotion for Javascotia to be a success, and furthermore, a small triumph for a first book.