In his 2000 debut, Mountain City, author Gregory Martin surveys his mother’s deeply-rooted family tree, reticulating the fates of aging relatives and a faded frontier town to assay “how a thing can persist against a seemingly irrevocable will for it to die.” Martin’s follow-up, Stories for Boys, springs from a frantic 2007 phone call: the writer’s 66-year-old father has just attempted suicide.
Two books, two distinct worlds. The branches of Martin’s family extend through and around Mountain City—aunts and uncles, first and second cousins, grandparents great and fallible—enduring pitiless Nevada winters and the transient economy of a no-stoplight town. Among Mountain City’s thirty-odd residents, Martin situates himself as the straight man, an adoptive son both of and not quite of the terrain, finding paternal role models in his garrulous Uncle Mel and the stoic “Gramps.” Despite the memoir’s abundant digressions and its warts-and-all representations, a profound absence haunts Mountain City: Martin’s peripatetic mother and father are left almost entirely unmentioned.
A dozen years later, Stories for Boys hinges on the assertion that Martin’s mother and father were, in fact, enjoying the golden years of a happy, thirty-nine year marriage. His mother an elite economist who regularly uprooted the family to follow university professorships and think-tank positions from the Midwest to the White House; his father the secondary wage-earner, forced to hustle new sales jobs after every move.
My mother and father loved each other. Their love was unferocious, grudgeless, without jealousy or tyranny, delirium or disdain. It was playful, gentle.
A double life unravels when Martin’s mother stumbles across images of gay porn in a home computer’s open browser tab; in the ensuing argument, Martin’s father gets the last word by swallowing an overdose of Ativan, Trazodone, and other pills from the medicine cabinet. After coming out of a coma, Martin’s father confesses several hard truths: he’d been molested by his own alcoholic father, and throughout the decades of marriage, he engaged in anonymous sexual liaisons with hundreds (or even a thousand) nameless men.
In a sequence of short, titled chapters, Martin, whose essays have appeared in the Sun, Kenyon Review Online, and Creative Nonfiction, grapples with the tumultuous aftermath: his mother throwing his father out of their house; his father edging into a new life as an oft-depressed, gay divorcé; and Martin left reeling.
While attending “three different high schools in three years in three different states,” Martin admits he “perfected a skill I’d been learning all my life, a skill that had been modeled for me since the day I was born, a skill that I have to this day in all kinds of contexts and situations—the ability to maintain a veneer of equanimity, a surface polish, a detachment from my emotional life, that I no longer trust.” Chipping away at that veneer, Martin approaches each chapter as a mini-essay, using conversational, unvarnished prose to document his struggle for a more honest balance between his inner life and outer bearing. In unsparing terms, Martin reveals how his father’s deceptions threaten his own memories, outing the normalcy of his childhood as a lie and robbing him of the foundation of well-raised well-being.
As with Mountain City, Martin frees himself from a strict first-person point-of-view, juxtaposing multiple tenses and perspectives to explore both the historical and the hypothetical. Stories for Boys is most effective when Martin returns to the role of a conduit or lens—a story his mother tells about the one (and only) time she met her father-in-law is particularly devastating—but rather than interrogate his upbringing with Mountain City’s wide journalistic eye, he primarily turns inward, working out his emotions on the page. Feeling “tainted, compromised, ashamed.” Pissed-off and deeply depressed. Indited in the moment, Martin’s sentences clench and seethe with resentment. Remembering a teenage night his father caught him joyriding, Martin writes, “I’m speculating, but perhaps he missed the car because he was planning to go somewhere himself. Perhaps he was planning to meet someone, someone anonymous. One more person who didn’t know him.”
A straight-talking therapist advises Martin that his father “needs your disapproval and your anger, your dissatisfaction and outrage. That might be the most valuable Father’s Day gift you can give him.” This prompt becomes a gift Martin keeps on giving, and in an unusual twist, the essayist positions himself as the bully of his own memoir, browbeating his dispossessed father and hounding the old man to reveal the ins and outs of his secret life with penitent transparency.
“I pummeled my father with questions,” Martin writes, questions loaded with “vengeance,” “self-righteousness,” and an “utter lack of sympathy.” Though Martin catalogues his unkindnesses, he is far more eloquent in his resentments than his apologies and far less searching when it comes to the vocabulary of his own intolerance: he nails his father at below-the-belt vulnerabilities, drilling the old man as a potential AIDS carrier, a likely public-restroom menace, and a possible fondler of grandchildren. Furthermore, despite those thirty-nine years of marriage and the biological existence of his brother and himself, Martin never investigates ideas of bisexuality or fluid sexuality—he declares his father is and always has been gay, period. Nor does he dare question whether his disapprobation would have been less volatile had his father carried on the same adulterous double-life in the company of anonymous women rather than men.
His father, however, resists being reduced to a type, and Martin’s outrage subtly shifts from his father’s closeted past to his present opaqueness as an essay subject:
Imagine all the stories my father has not told and will never tell. How can I know him if he won’t tell me his stories? How can I tell you what he won’t tell me?
Lacking those stories, Martin reproduces over a dozen of his father’s personal e-mails and offers capsule summaries of numerous human behavior studies, further decorating the text with family photos, Google maps, news clippings, and his children’s drawings, giving the memoir a pieced-together quality in keeping with the author’s belief in memory as a personal construct. Lacking empathy and emotional distance, Martin also veers into lengthy digressions on the life of Walt Whitman, siphoning the old poet’s boundless reserves of tolerance and compassion.
As his father stonewalls, Stories for Boys becomes the story of Martin’s obsession with telling his own children the truth about their grandparent’s divorce. “I wanted to tell them more than I wanted to protect them from what I might tell them,” Martin writes, the narrative shifting onto his own Family-Channel family, with Martin playing a boorish but fundamentally decent Tim Allen, his wife ever-patient and Jedi-wise, and then a pair of rambunctious boys.
My childhood had been one layer of secrets and silence over another. So had my father’s. I did not want to pass on this inheritance to my sons.
Revealing his father’s secrets to his children becomes either an irrational compulsion or the act of a university-level creative writing teacher giving himself (as protagonist) a concrete “want” to be thwarted in the narrative; in either case, when Martin does sit the boys down and drop the queer bomb in their laps, they are understandably confused, compromised, uncomfortable, and, yes, angry.
“I’m still mad,” Martin tells his boys, encouraging them to own their own feelings. “You get to be mad at him. You can even tell him that you’re mad.”
As an ideal resolution, Martin hopes to one day “free (his father) from the burden of my judgment.” Rather than pass down an inheritance of secrecy, Martin instead passes down a legacy of resentment. Once given life, things have that uncanny way of persisting against a seemingly irrevocable will for them to die.
Nathan Huffstutter has fiction forthcoming in the Literary Review, and his reviews and essays have recently appeared in Paste, DIAGRAM, and The Collagist.
Stories For Boys
Hawthorne Books, 2012
$16.95 paperback, ISBN: 978-0-9834775-8-7