a literary review
Michael Gerhard Martin’s short story debut, Easiest If I Had a Gun, embodies a kind of rustbelt gothic, where the children of farmers and factory workers claw toward an American dream that’s almost always out of reach, sometimes by miles, tragically, and sometimes by excruciating inches. Martin refuses nostalgia for an America that promised a reasonably comfortable life in exchange for hard, honest work, but that has rarely delivered on that promise for the working poor and underclasses. Though Martin’s stories are set in the mid-Atlantic, the class struggles his characters face are quintessentially American, and the emotional trials his characters endure prove universally human.
Martin’s prose is full of evocative specificity: the 10-year-old’s rod in “Seventy-Two-Pound Fish Story” is a Zebco “with two kinds of reels”; the power tool in “Even the Dust” that Cliff uses at a deserted foundry to do “some nasty, dirty, under-the-table demolition work” is a Sawzall; the paint tube Elsa uses in “Made Just for Ewe” for her wooden-yarn-spool angels is labeled “flesh tone,” though the only shade of skin it could represent is “pinkish-white”; the firearm from the collection’s first story, the story from which the collection’s title comes, “Shit Weasel Is Late for Class,” is a .45 caliber Colt 1911A1. Martin’s stories are rooted in craft, but they transcend their well-wrought story structures and impeccably chosen details and dialog with moments of poignant lyricism and authenticity: “I used to go up to the orchard and lay on a flat rock and think of things like that, God, the opening of blossoms, the decay of fallen fruit…,” thinks a middle-aged Elsie, a woman who fights in “The Strange Ways People Are” to hide the resentment she feels for a now frail and senile father who successfully blocked her only path to college.
Many of the stories in Easiest If I Had a Gun reveal how much a college education symbolizes an escape from menial, degrading, sporadic, or dangerous work, and how the lack of a college degree has come to severely limit anyone’s attempts to ascend to—or even to remain in—America’s working and lower-middle classes. In “Made Just for Ewe,” we find that an older Elsa, now selling her handwork at craft shows, has nothing more than “blind faith” that she might someday be able to retire. In “Ilka, Ilse, Kostas and Pie,” an indignant Ilka stays in a loveless marriage because she never could afford a graduate education, the ambition that inspired her immigration to the U.S. In “Bridgeville,” Jack, who doesn’t want to go to college, strains to find direction for his life and to stay connected to Meaghan, who becomes steeped in a college experience he’ll never have. Though, in “Dreamland,” attending an art college seems feasible for a smart and talented Emilie, her dysfunctional home life presents barrier after barrier to the possibility of her escaping a difficult life full of unfulfilling work.
In matters of the heart, Martin’s characters struggle with excess: they are manic, obsessed, depressed, gorging themselves on lies, alcohol and other drugs, food, and sex. The stories in Easiest If I Had Gun lay bare the agonies of feeling alienated, trapped, and powerless. There are stories of desperate boyhoods, fraught with rejection, bullying, and violence (“Shit Weasel Is Late for Class,” “You Gotta Know When to Hold Them,” “Seventy-Two Pound Fish Story”); stories that chronicle the dissolution of young love and expose the terrible reverberations (“Even the Dust,” “Bridgeville,” “Dreamland”); and stories that express the bitterness and burning embarrassment of intelligent and resourceful women who’ve been prevented from realizing their potential (“The Strange Ways People Are,” “Made Just for Ewe,” “Ilka, Ilse, Kostas and Pie”). Affecting, but never maudlin, Martin’s stories are rife with one-liners and clever and comical turns of phrase. They’ll charm you and make you smile—often amusedly, sometimes wistfully, sometimes wryly—just before they break your heart.
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Brandy Whitlock is a professor and librarian living again in her home state of Maryland. She holds a B.S. in accounting from Virginia Tech, an M.A. in English from Miami University, and an M.F.A. in creative writing and an M.L.I.S, both from the University of Alabama. She teaches a variety of classes and workshops in information literacy, critical thinking, and creative writing. Her poems have appeared in literary magazines like New Orleans Review, Calyx, Salt Hill, The Baltimore Review, and Denver Quarterly.