Review: Gregory Martin’s Stories for Boys
Stories for Boys
Review by Andra Hibbert
Tomorrow, I will teach forty-six undergraduates about memoir and invariably some of their rough drafts will be morality tales where they are the hero of their own learning experience. Who can blame them? We want these heroic stories and my students are fresh from writing college essays. Meanwhile, literary memoir too often goes in the other direction, chronicling in detail the Downward Spiral, the Dark Underbelly. In both cases, the narrative is too often one-dimensional and renders family members as mere figures. The awful mother. The stoic father. The drunk. We’ve read it all before.
Gregory Martin defies all of these expectations in Stories for Boys and instead offers access to the complicated, shifting terrain of fatherhood and filial love after pain, deception, and disclosure. He examines the years following his father’s suicide attempt, revelation of infidelity and homosexuality, and disclosure of childhood sexual abuse by his own father. Martin is a man coming to terms with his father’s sexuality, but Stories isn’t a book about being gay or even about having a gay dad. It is a story about having a secret revealed and what it means to work through a new reality. Martin defines his project writing,
“I didn’t want a different father. I wanted to find a way to love my father the way I had always loved him. But that was no longer possible. I would have to find new ways to love him, to go along with the old ways that remained.”
When Martin spends time in these conflicting emotions that none of us want to have, he transcends the tabloid particulars. He is angry, disappointed and filled with grief for the father he has lost. He is paralyzed by these emotions and ashamed of them. He is silent and wants to scream. We want to scream for him and at him. We read his father’s emails and know the complicated calculus he goes through to decide whether to answer them, whether to call. These are the emotions that we barely let ourselves have. Martin has the raw honesty to not only render them perfectly, but to also let them linger unresolved over many months and chapters until they slowly relinquish their stranglehold on him (and us).
Martin’s fatherhood is also at stake. His own sons, clearly the center of Martin’s life, grace the edges of the book and provide an important counterpoint for his relationship with his father. It is for them that Martin builds a treehouse, hammering out his anger. It is in their name that he interrogates his father about whether he ever hurt them. It is because of them that the long cold war between him and his father thaws. The young boys are the next generation in a book that is really about four generations. These bookending generations of Martin’s purely innocent children and his depraved grandfather provide resonant insight about how secrets and abuse ramify beyond the deceived and molested.
Structurally, Stories for Boys is episodic and fragmentary. The impact of each episode is often not felt until five chapters have been read together and their psychological edges rub against each other, layering, chafing, and fitting. Walt Whitman is threaded throughout, and several chapters bring up the ideas of psychologists to provide an explanatory mirror for the surrounding chapters. Sometimes this bent toward the impressionistic falters, and I found myself wanting him to settle into an idea and show his reader its implications instead of whisking us away to the next moment. Images also spread throughout the book: pictures of the family, the house, the dog, the treehouse, and the cowboys from Bonanza, among others. On the whole, these fragments are mimetic of sifting through our own minds and creating both a present and a new past with this new father. Ultimately, the structure falls into place as another facet of Martin’s psychological honesty.
Stories for Boys is the repressed Western cousin of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? In place of Bechdel’s obsessive perseveration, Martin gives us almost taciturn access to a shifting emotional landscape. Here we can see what it means to learn to love someone in a new way, in the long time after the moment when everything changes. This is not a comfortable space, but it is where most of us live most of the time and we’re lucky to have Martin as a guide and cartographer.
Gregory Martin is the author of Mountain City, a memoir, which received a Washington State Book Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Martin’s work has appeared in The Sun magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Creative Nonfiction, StoryQuarterly, and Orion magazine. He teaches creative writing at the University of New Mexico.
Andra Hibbert is a queer writer who grew up in northern Vermont. She has an MFA in fiction from UMass Boston and teaches composition at Penn State. Her stories have appeared in Five Points and Weave Magazine.