|cover credit: Braddock Avenue Books|
Braddock Avenue Books (2014)
Reviewed by Michael Chin
Easiest If I Had a Gun is a remarkable debut collection from Michael Gerhard Martin. The short stories tend to focus on young characters who stand on the precipice of life-shaping decisions. In some cases, the choices are obviously significant—a high schooler alternately contemplating a school shooting or suicide—while others are less evident but little less formative—a lying, bullying, and manipulating boy attends a fishing trip to compensate for the absence of a real relationship with his father. In his longer pieces, a young man spends a semester groping to understand the changing dynamics of his relationship when his girlfriend leaves for college, and a woman navigates adult waters all her own—sleeping with her music teacher and engaged in the constant ebb and flow of conflict with her alcoholic mother. In each case, Martin remains fiercely true to the thought processes of his characters.
The collection opens with “Shit Weasel is Late for Class.” The story sees Josh Geringer—an overweight, acne-riddled high schooler—face all manners of torture. Bullies throw basketballs at his head, punch him, and shove their bare buttocks in his face in the locker room. Teachers and administrators are both oblivious and aggressive toward Josh for not trying harder to fit in. As Josh, the narrator, articulates:
I hate being a punching bag, especially in front of other kids. I hate his hands on me, pinching, flicking, poking. I hate his locker-room smell of sweat covered over with Right Guard. I hate being one of the weird ones, hate being the kind of kid that gets bullied by Burnout Brian McVey.Because of his experiences, Josh contemplates suicide, threatening his antagonists with a knife, or shooting them with his grandfather’s gun. He goes so far as to bring the weapons to school, precipitating some form of disaster. The story takes a turn, however, when two good-hearted tough guys stick up for Josh and break the arm of the lead ruffian, McVey, in Josh’s defense. When one of McVey’s toadies, Billy, attempts to continue bullying, Josh handily pummels the smaller kid—then makes a habit out of it. Drunk with a new power, Josh starts calling Billy “Shit Weasel” and transforms into a bully in his own right. After inflicting one such bout of punishment on his victim, Josh ruminates, “I am sure he is going to tell, sure I will have to hang my head and pretend to be ashamed. The truth is, I do feel a little ashamed, but I hate Shit Weasel more.” Thus, the story defies saccharine resolutions or all but cliché scenes of the grotesque in favor of an entirely realistic shade of gray that allows readers to both sympathize with and recognize all of the ugliness within the adolescent tormenters.
Martin explores similar territory through a different lens in “Seventy-Two Pound Fish Story.” A boy, yearning for a better father-son relationship, places the weight of his aspirations on a fishing trip with his father’s friend and son, the Gormans. The boy lies about his relationship with his father, picks on Alec Gorman for struggling at school, acts out his jealousy toward his familial setup, and annoys everyone with his inexperience and preposterously boastful claims about his fishing skills and the fish he almost catches that day. In an artful moment, Alec’s father, who had at first insisted the boy call him Lute, retracts the offer, stating, “Why don’t you call me Mr. Gorman, okay?” The story proves to be a portrait of a boy who is desperate for connections of any kind, and who falls short with every attempt.
The collection also includes two longer stories that border on novellas: “Bridgeville” and “Dreamland.” Despite the strength of his shorter works, the longer form yields mixed results for Martin. “Bridgeville” maintains a tight arc of Jack’s coming of age during his senior year of high school, particularly through the lens of his relationship with Meaghan, who is one year older, college-bound, and alternately in love with, indifferent to, or actively manipulating Jack. Jack seems willfully oblivious to her shifts in attention, until he makes an ill-advised visit to her college, learns of her infidelities, and leaves in a huff. Weeks later, he succumbs to Meaghan’s charms all over again when she comes home for Thanksgiving. And though Jack can’t put his finger on it, Martin artfully paints a picture that their relationship has irrevocably changed at that point. In “Dreamland,” Martin is similarly true to his protagonist, Emilie, allowing her decision-making processes to dictate her path over a story arc that lasts for month. “Dreamland,” however, lacks the focus of “Bridgeville. It is, at first, the story of a teenage girl involved in a tryst with her teacher. However, it becomes a story about a fledgling artist who hopes to head to college, her relationship with her more adventurous best friend, and the ways in which her alcoholic mother’s lack of responsibility stunts her life. This all culminates in a suicide attempt. Taken as a whole, the story succeeds in capturing the confusion and multifaceted nature of a young woman’s life, but comes up short as a coherent narrative.
If there is one certainty to be taken from Easiest if I Had a Gun, it is that Martin knows his characters and follows them along their journeys to the fullest. The stories do not shy away from complex or ugly outcomes. At his best, Martin proves himself to be a master of a tightly contained form. Even the collection’s weaker stories hold true to a drive to explore every deep, dark crevice of the diverse characters’ psyches. Each one is haunted in unmistakable ways, and each gropes toward a better life. They rarely find lasting solace, but readers with a profoundly enriched insight into the human condition.