Martin and John
by Dale Peck
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Published February 01, 1993
227 pgs. • Find on WorldCat
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
January 18, 1994
Dale Peck’s 1993 book, Martin and John, works through some powerful ecstasies and traumas the way people do.
Yeah, people do work through them, though some never recover. Some people who work through trauma rethink what happened, tell themselves changing stories about what happened to make them who they are, and think about what might have happened differently to the point they begin to lose any certainty of distinguishing which version “really” happened. (Not just national or family history but individual memory gets reshaped into what “should have been” to explain conceptions that were to some degree shaped by what happened, but has been edited out, and not just what is too painful to have been true, but good and bad things “too good to be false”—false, that is, within the current self-conception of self, family, nation.)
Most of the way through reading Martin and John, I had been resisting designating it a “novel.” Until the last two chapters, I saw it as a collection of stories about relationships between characters with recurring names (Martin, John, Henry, Susan) and varying childhood scars. The Martins have a wide range of attributes. The Johns seem much more similar to each other, though, perhaps, this has more to do with the narrator of each chapter/story being John (except for passages in which the narrator goes third-person objective, although this always seems to be John objectifying—and both John and the impersonal narrator are very, very conscious about making oneself an object…)
The love of flashbacks, the variations on a core of experiences, the attention to the kind of sensuous detail supposedly missing in American novels, and a certain self-laceration all made Peck seem like a queer, less autobiographical Dazai Osamu, the great Japanese writer of the 1940s.
Gay writers are frequently judged to lack imagination, able only to rework their experiences (sometimes into male and female characters: see the raps—that I don’t accept—against Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams). In some sense all writers draw on their experiences of the world. Peck imagines different lives keenly and writes lyrically with telling details.
The masochism in Martin and John troubles me. I don’t see it as play (as those defending s&m practices generally claim it is), especially not when it is fathers beating sons (a pattern that Peck’s later work, Law of Enclosure, reveals is very autobiographical). The family pains are recounted with a harrowing matter-of-factness. So are the representations of homophobia beyond the boundaries of nuclear families. So are the deaths of some of the Martins and the sense of irreparable loss. (For instance, Peck writes of veterans of so many funerals that “they had become inured to words, even their own.”)
So, Martin and John is an “AIDS novel” after all, if a “novel” can be variations on a theme. It ends with a very self-conscious final chapter about writing that I (perhaps credulously) take as direct reportage.
See also: Dale Peck in San Francisco, 1996
©18 January 1994, Stephen O. Murray