Writing and mourning seem like naturally inimical activities. How does one attain the detachment necessary to write while still grieving for a loss--how to convey a paralyzing pain even as you're feeling it?
Dale Peck's extraordinary first book Martin and John probes these questions with maturity and eloquence. At first glance, this self-proclaimed novel looks like a collection of unrelated short stories alternating with brief italicized passages. The stories are vastly different, but appear connected by a system of names and settings: Kansas and New York provide the locales; the narrator of each is named John; Beatrice, Harry and Susan recur, although always as different characters; and each contains an enigmatic figure named Martin.
Only gradually does it become clear that the italicized passages contain the "real story": someone named John is writing these short stories in order to make sense of the loss of his lover, someone named Martin, to AIDS. The short stories we read emerge as one sustained cry of deflected grief, of pain mediated through fiction. From these stories, a sketchy narrative arises: John's violent childhood in Kansas, his adolescence spent as a hustler in New York, the meeting with Martin--and the final move back to Kansas, where Martin dies and where John begins to write.
In the hands of a less skillful writer, this complicated premise might have come off as writing-seminar pretense. But Peck has the talent and energy to flesh out his idea beautifully. Martin and John displays a keen eye for details and striking imagery: a drunken mother ensconced in a dark room "looked like an ice cube in rum;" on the open prairie "the sky gap(es) like an open mouth." Peck's language renders, "My face felt swollen and shapeless, like a moldy orange, as though grief had been shoved into my mouth like a handful of seeds, but I didn't know what to do, whether to spit, or just swallow."
These insights sustain even the weaker sections of the book; some of the New York stories aren't as well thought out as others. But Peck usually displays a full command of the different tones he employs. The short story format allows him to try on narrative voices that range from the biting to the lyrical, and he achieves effects that recall such very different writers as Raymond Carver and Willa Cather.
As the book progresses and the narrative gains coherence, the purposes of Peck's structure becomes clearer. The stories express grief by talking around painful, precise facts; it's easier to imagine the way things might have been than to remember exactly the way they were. Is Beatrice John's mother who dies after a miscarriage, as the narrator of "Blue Wet Paint Columns" tells us, or is she his lonely step-mother, as we read in "The Search for Water"? Is Martin a runaway boy who shows up at John's Kansas house one day, or a grade school teacher in New York? An obscenely rich club-hopper or a Midwestern night watchman who barely can scrape together enough for rent?
These biographical facts metter less than the truths of character they allow Peck to express. While the characters' occupations and social positions fluctuate, certain gestures and objects of intimacy reverberate through all the stories a hand ruffling hair, a rose in a lapel, a certain turn of phrase. The final effect is like looking at multiple exposures of a photograph, or into a glorious colored kaleidescope. Although Martin and John never tells us the exact details of these characters' lives, it gives a finely observed portrait of the way those lives feel.
While Peck suggests that stories which mourn death can also sustain life, what makes this novel truly heartbreaking is his understanding of the limits of stories--the stubborn persistence of real life. Peck possess the double ability to spin beautiful fictions and then expose their falsity. As John watches the emaciated Martin die. Peck offers a delicate, gruesome image: "The way his shoulders shook and the way his bones poked at his wet skin made me think of old rice-paper lanterns shaking in the wind, starting to melt in the rain."
But then, Peck dismantles this pretty image, exposing the unpretty reality it describes and dignifies: "When his body folded over at the waist...and his face smacked the tub's bottom, I didn't think it was like a rice-paper lantern being closed. I thought it was like the body of a six foot-two-inch man who weighed eighty pounds and who'd had all the shit and blood and water and air sucked out of him folding over in death."
This intrusion of a messy, brutal reality into the realm of art lends this book its stunning force. To use the words of one character, the story "floats...off the page, defying the cramped letters that frame it, spilling out into life." Few 25-year-olds demonstrate Peck's intimacy with the painful facts of death and loss, and fewer can write about them with this much grace and power. Martin and John gives evidence of a prodigious, promising talent.