A novelist explores his rural, dysfunctional upbringing for hints of the writer he would become.
For his third memoir, Martin (English and Creative Writing/Ohio St. Univ.; Break the Skin, 2011, etc.) assembles a series of personal essays that run roughly in chronological order, from his childhood in a small Illinois farm town to his more urbane, literate adulthood. His father looms large over many of these pieces, and understandably so: He lost both of his hands in a farming accident, becoming a sour and abusive parent, and many of the early pieces are concerned with Martin proving his manliness to adults. In “You Want It?,” a particularly strong piece, the author recalls working a summer farm job at 14 and shrewdly lays out the subtle parrying among the boys, exposing the reasons why some boys bully and why some do or don’t push back. Martin can seemingly turn any subject back to his hardscrabble youth: Asked to write about the Pittsburgh mansion of robber baron Henry Clay Frick, he bounces the industrialist’s wealth against the lives of the working-class men he better relates to. The author’s prose is carefully controlled, which is a welcome counter to the flash, drama and broad comedy that mark noisier (and more factually suspect) memoirs. But at times the narrative feels more bloodless than it ought to be. On a number of occasions Martin mentions a debate with his wife over their childlessness, but his avoidance of discussing the tension between them sticks out. In “Somniloquy,” he strains to connect his childhood sleepwalking to his mother-in-law’s sad decline from Alzheimer’s, but some stories don’t need such effortful metaphorical setups or so much attention on the author.
Martin is an expert memoirist willing to explore every remembered utterance for emotional weight, though at times he keeps the reader at too far a distance.