Martin and John
By Dale Peck
Soho Press, 2015
256 pages, $12.95
Reviewed by Daniel Lefferts
Part of reading Martin and John, Dale Peck’s 1993 debut novel, which was reissued with a new introduction by Peck by Soho Press earlier this year, is deciding just how many stories it tells. By one count, the number is eight: seven short stories, plus another—a fragmented narrative divided into brief chapters and scattered throughout. By another count, the number is one: though the stories’ protagonists hail from varying circumstances, and endure vastly different (though often comparably hellish) tribulations, they’re each named John, and each of their lovers, though he comes in many shapes and guises, Martin. The John of “Driftwood” is a teen living on a farm, his Martin a young runaway that his family briefly harbors. The John of “The Gilded Theater” is a young-adult Kansan in New York, his Martin a fop-scion whose wealth enables him, in one particularly outlandish scene, to fill a bathtub with crystals. These couldn’t be the same people, and yet the book’s nomenclature suggests otherwise. The unsettling appearance, later on in the novel, of a character named Dale suggests a third possibility: maybe this isn’t, really, a fictional story at all.
If each of the stories in Martin and John is, in essence, the same story—and there are points of similarity beyond the recycled names to suggest that they are—what, then, is the value in narrative repetition? Most if not all Johns in the book lose parents; several become sexually involved with older men; others hook. A thirst for experience, for adulteration even, runs through the stories like a live wire. Gestures, settings, and bits of dialogue reappear, continuously and conspicuously. The theory behind such a tactic would seem to be that all individuals, in a fundamental way, partake of a single, shared reality—that we all, whatever the variations in circumstance distinguishing us, experience the same ecstasies and sorrows. And yet the particularity of the tags uniting these stories suggests exactly the opposite: it signals the presence of a central command, a Psyche-in-Chief at the head of the table, hewing closely to a singular vision, and hurting. Many of us grow up with subpar father figures, but how many of us sit, as two of Peck’s Johns sit, while said father figure runs his fingers through our hair with eerie vigor, his hand like a “thick-toothed comb”? These are private terrors, the kind that most of us keep locked away in the grottoes of our minds forever. On the scale Peck has created here, they obtain the status of esoteric lore. No matter: universality is overrated, anyway.
Daniel Mendelsohn, in The Elusive Embrace: “If the emotional aim of intercourse is a total knowing of the other, gay sex may be, in its way, perfect, because in it, a total knowledge of the other’s experience is, finally, possible. But since the object of that knowledge is already wholly known to each of the parties, the act is also, in a way, redundant. Perhaps it is for this reason that so many of us keep seeking repetition, as if depth were impossible.”
It’s worth noting that the literary work Martin and John most resembles (and that it chronologically precedes) is also about homosexual love. Do not the women of Cunningham’s The Hours experience a kind of unity in shared pain? Is not the novel less about any of its individual characters than it is about a particular kind of wound that, never finding a salve sufficient to heal it, repeats its trauma, generation after generation?
Susan Sontag said one of Camp’s “tonalities” was excruciation. There is much excruciation in Martin and John, but little Camp. In one scene, a man afflicted with AIDS leaks feces and blood from his anus, uncontrollably. “Purple clots” move toward a bathtub drain in “dark ragged lines.” Deep reading requires that we expose ourselves to a kind of infection. From the same Sontag essay: “Camp and tragedy are antitheses.”
Martin and John is, to be certain, not without fault. The precise writing in the early stories gives way, in the book’s latter half, to sloppy, over-ventilated prose (“The worlds of surreality and reality blur like the change of seasons,” John moons at one point). At least some of the book’s sadness seems unearned and cloying. Peck’s wealthy characters are cartoonishly wealthy; the outrageous detail with which he paints them implies a stubborn belief in the existence of earthly heavens. The book is, generally speaking, amateurish—mistake-laden, rough-edged, unsatisfying, too ambitious, overly emotional, eminently unworkshoppable, and, for all these reasons, vividly alive.
If the traditional realist novel is the ideal heterosexual form—conflict, climax, and falling action being roughly congruent with courtship, child-rearing, and retirement in Florida—what is the ideal form for a story about gay love? For all the narrative Martin and John contains—and, stretching from Kansas to Long Island to New York City, across the socioeconomic spectrum, and across lifespans, it contains a wealth of it—it lacks at least one thing we’ve learned to expect from our fiction: resolution. It’s possible, of course, that the pain Peck seeks to capture, in conjuring endless versions of the same two gay men, is one we’re still feeling today. The young, urban gay male who reads Martin and John in 2015 will be tempted to place between his self and the text the chill of pity, of historical consciousness. How terrible then, how different now. How different now? Does this same reader not live, love, and go to bed, still, with a mini-clinician in his head, telling him to be afraid, to mistrust the unconscious sensuousness that, he’s almost certain, forms the baseline, and constitutes the life-force, of love between men and women? He tries to imagine the ways gay love might nobler than heterosexual love, and a valiant task this is; but his efforts fail to change the fact that all the reasons for his love’s inferiority, its penumbra of incompleteness, are too readily available, and come to mind too quickly, with force. Martin and John, like pain, like depression, runs not in lines but in circles. There is something missing from our lives. The ache its lack creates is beautiful. “In this story,” John, or Dale, tells us late in the book, “I’d intended semen to be the water of life. But, in order to live, I’ve only ever tasted mine.”