EASIEST IF I HAD A GUN
by Michael Gerhard Martin
Alley Way Books, 135 pages
reviewed by Rosie Huf
It wasn’t Michael Gerhard Martin’s stories in the collection Easiest If I Had a Gun that wooed me as much as it was his crisp, visceral writing. His narrative constructs are alluring and beg to be unpacked, analyzed, and savored. Without apparent ego or bias, he transcribes the thoughts, memories, and dialogue of his characters as they struggle to navigate the mundane obstacles associated with living as lower middle-class, white Americans. This theme—the white man’s struggle—is not new. Yet, Martin manages to bring to the subject a fresh voice and a macabre sense of social conscience.
At present, Martin, who received an MFA from the University of Pittsburg, is an adjunct professor of Rhetoric at Babson College in Massachusetts. He is evidently passionate about language, employing words and structuring sentences in order to produce subtle messages. His stories take place in various towns and neighborhoods in Pennsylvania that are filled with particular kinds of people: men and women and children suffocated by inherited traditions and conservative social rules. “The old saying is ‘write what you know,’ but I write WHO I know—my characters are always constructs of me melded with people I know intimately,” he told Damon McKinney of the JMWW blog. He pens haunting apparitions of these people who desire but cannot enact or accept change. And, they remain with the reader long after she has finished the book.
This keen awareness of his surroundings coupled with an aptitude for observation serves Martin well in his writing. But, by the end of the third story, “Made Just for Ewe,” those same abilities, which allow him to transmute reality into fiction, made me question if his words don’t actually reveal a superficially cloaked, literary homunculus representative of his own biased world view. Whiteness as a racial construct is absent from Martin’s characterizations, but this is not true of brownness or blackness. At times, it is thus difficult to interpret whether Martin exposes his characters or if they expose his particular white lens.
The collection begins with “Shit Weasel is Late for Class,” the story that won Martin the 2013 James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. Josh Geringer, the main character, is an average chubby nerd with no propensity for fitting in. He trudges through the halls of his high school taking blows from the cool kids and contemplating the apparently ever-present teenage existential question: to commit a school shooting suicide mashup, or to keep suffering. Thankfully, he resorts to other less fatal, though still questionable, options.
The stories that follow “Shit Weasel” successfully manage to ensnare readers in a dichotomous world of dolefully self-aware and deluded individuals. Cyclical, inherited poverty, small town tendencies, and hope abandoned at the loss of youthful naivety bind these separate yet linked narratives of families living under the minimum wage. The reader is led across a vivid, complicated narrative landscape of Alzheimer’s, crumbling parent-child relationships, and teenage heartbreak. Heathcliff, the young tragic hero of “You Gotta Know When to Hold Them,” exemplifies this uncomfortable reality. “I couldn’t help but watch. The whole junkyard caught fire, and a plume of thick oily smoke came from the tires,” he remembers.
It stank to high heaven. A gas tank popped. I heard the big siren calling the firefighters, but knew they’d be too late. Nothing could stop that fire. The heat from the fire was my mother’s love coming back to everything, to everyone […] And I figured maybe dad, deprived of its evil presence, would grow like the lilacs Ma planted to fill the empty space in the fence. Empty space, like a blank page […] Then I noticed my mistake. The wind was blowing harder, damp and a little cool. And the fence between my house and the junkyard was on fire. It occurred to me that I probably had about as much chance of making my ma happy as dad did, which was none at all.
The figurative pit churning in Heathcliff’s stomach swirls like a black hole ready to swallow Martin’s readers because it is boundless: it does not know nationality, gender, location, or financial wealth. In a sense, this underscores the universal relativism of his characters. We are all one mistake away from not meeting societal expectation, or from not being able to put food on our family’s plates.
Of the entire collection, though, “Made Just for Ewe,” with its concise yet weighted language, provides the peak example of Martin’s skill. The protagonist Elsa is a craft-show shopkeep who travels the country with her husband making friends and selling used yarn spool angels. Amiable vendors and elderly women shopping alongside their daughters fill this world. Elsa, Martin reveals, “had not been popular as a girl;”
she hadn’t been pretty, or good at anything that other girls didn’t make fun of. In school, they would flip the back of her collar to prove to one another that her clothes were homemade. Eating homemade cupcakes, she coveted their Tastykakes and Twinkies products.
Here, people knew her. She spoke their language. They admired her taste, her work. She made friends.
For Elsa, the innocuous weekend craft show scene is a lucrative happy place. There, she can take refuge from a college-educated life unlived and from personal expectations never met. But for Martin, the things and people presented here are not quite what they seem. Or, are they?
By all accounts, Elsa is an average, middle-aged white woman, fiscally conservative and maybe a smidge liberal in her social leanings. Maybe. So, her perceptions of the people—particularly minorities—with whom she encounters and interacts are realistic and true to her character. Yet, upon closer look at her mental appraisals of the minorities she encounters, Elsa becomes—to the reader—more disturbing than the woman nostalgically tossing around racial slurs. Martin writes,
The security guard held the door and smiled at Elsa, and Elsa smiled back, thinking about how even though they were so different, the Mexican girl was probably a Catholic, too and so pretty if Elsa looked past the long fingernails and the greasy kiss curls pasted to the girl’s cheeks. Slender. Elsa imagined her in a muslin peasant dress, all brown cheeks and glittering eyes, gazing up thankfully at some handsome cowboy hero.
Here, Elsa thinks on the Mexican security guard with a seemingly genuine desire to find common ground. Elsa is a successful vender. The guard is most likely a low-paid, hourly employee, who may or may not hate her job. Though it is not immediately discernable, there must be something that makes them akin to each other, that ingratiates and redeems the badged corporate cog to her. This requisite redemption comes via an assumed religious connection and romanticized image of the vaquero masculino and his scantily clad bella dama. An image possibly cultivated during Elsa’s childhood on her own family’s farm.
Attempting to connect to someone outside her culture is not the problem. This is a common human need and regular response to new people or places. The actual point of contention comes from the language used and distance maintained between class, station, and person. Elsa describes the girl through words laden with negative connotation: “so pretty if Elsa looked past…,” “the greasy kiss curls pasted….” The guard does not fit Elsa’s standard of beauty—a standard propagated by America’s dominant white culture. So, her nails and her hair must be forgiven. Her edges must be softened by extension of an exotified peasant dress and complimentary glittering eyes. She is transformed from unappealing subhuman thing to a sexualized, cinematic, still devalued thing: a fragile brown girl waiting for a hard man set to rescue her. There is no real understanding on Elsa’s part, no true common ground. Just a comfortable recrafting.
Later in the story, Elsa ruminates angrily after a grotesque interaction witnessed at her friend Saul’s candy stall. Specifically, it was the purchasing of black gummy bears by a blatantly racist, elderly Southern white woman. Martin writes,
Elsa jerked her head around, terrified some brown person would hear the word and go berserk. She felt short of breath, a tightening in her chest that reminded her of church, of the dark confinement of the confessional booth. She hated racial slurs with the same intense heat and shame with which she hated dirty words for procreation and words for people’s privates.
Elsa’s reaction to the word that would make the “brown” people go “berserk” does not actually denote that she found it disagreeable because it is wrong or because it is a callous, empty, degrading, incendiary word. She takes offense simply because it is an uncouth word that should not be spoken allowed or in public.
The reader is likely to root for Elsa because she seemingly wants to be above it all. She simply wants to sell her wares and maybe be a champion for the brown people when they are undeservingly pressed upon. But, in the end, she is different from the elderly Southern woman only by a few varying, conscious degrees. The white people in her world are sans color or race identification unless they are condemned in some way, like the “powder-white” racist woman. Not even the assumed-white shoplifter was classified by color. It is predominantly the brown people: the Blacks, the Mexicans, the Chinese who need designation, classification, identification so that they may clearly exist in her world.
“Made Just for Ewe” is a multilayered, well-balanced, troubling story that should be dissected, chewed carefully, but reticently swallowed. There is one problem though, which lingers like a sour note: it is unclear if the lexicon used to reveal Elsa is hers alone or a reflection of the author’s. This is the only story where Martin’s characters directly interact with minorities. In interviews about the work, he touches on blatant racists, like the elderly Southern woman, but never ruminates on unconscious racism, like Elsa’s. This is a problem often found in the writing of white authors, but it’s not a problem isolated to them. How many authors even realize they are doing it? But, within this motif, where color is especially noted to indirectly condemn or validate a stigmatized person’s very being, Martin—consciously or subconsciously—pays successful homage to a deep, systemic problem in America.
Of the nine compiled stories, the final two could have carried more weight with less sugarcoated substance. Actually, they could have been omitted completely as they did not match the pace or tone of the rest of the collection. But overall, Martin’s stories beg for thoughtful introspection.
Rosie Huf is currently pursuing a Master of Liberal Studies with a concentration in nonfiction from Arizona State University. She has several interviews published in Superstition Review, and is the author of the soon-to-be-published blog “Girlsspadeforkpen.com.” When not writing or transcribing interviews, Rosie spends her time reading, cooking, and traveling. Rosie also handles Cleaver’s social media and edits the Cleaver Editors’ Blog.