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Let's start with the book cover: the background is a sheet of double entry accounting paper from an accountant's ledger. Upper left corner has a quote from Mary Gaitskill, "Lonely, understated, and heartbreaking". The foreground presents a seated figure, presumably male, who looks to be trying to achieve the meditative yoga position with feet together and arms akimbo. The face is featureless. The title appears on the lower right and announces that the work is a novel.
It is a suggestive cover. One suggestion it offers is that once we turn that cover we will have a meditative accounting of a childhood, a growing up story, a bildungsroman double entry accounting of the pluses and minuses of a life. Double entry reminds us that life comes with both good and evil events and actions. And, of course, Bertrand Russell reminds us that, “Most of the greatest evil that man has inflicted upon man comes through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false.” Our moral certainty about human beings and what we think they ought to be can be devastating.
Open the cover and read the Jean Genet quote: To escape from horror bury yourself in it. Turn to the first short chapter: PRETEND YOU ARE MY SISTER. There are silos in the distance, in the sky above the house out in the country, where our real dad's parents live. Like all dramatic literature the first command is "Let's pretend". Notice how much we learn from that first sentence. Father is gone from the family. Alcoholic and violent, and now gone. Mother is working and seeking companionship. "The poverty was embarrassing." Mother works hard and copes as best she can. Children have a series of baby sitters until they are old enough to be by themselves. The narrator tells this story in a flood of memories reaching back to the crib, when he used to escape by climbing over the crib rails and down a chest of drawers that he used as a ladder. After his father left he would do whatever he could to sleep with his mother, to be near her, to escape the loneliness.
"Let's pretend" invites the reader to participate in the action and makes the story a shared experience. We become a part of these memories and experiences instead of merely looking in at a first person narrative. That "trick" is what makes the novel so moving - the narrator's experiences evoke one's own experiences of those difficult years of growing up. And it is moving - sentiment without sentimentality.
The press reviews for this work include:
Time Out New York
The training wheels come off in Douglas A. Martin's latest novel, Once You Go Back, a coming-of-age tale that pedals through the trappings of childhood and adolescence with grace. .
Billed as a novel, this volume of snapshot tales, presented in a voice at once concise and emotion-drenched, forms its larger narrative only with the aid of a reader's thoughtful engagement
Martin, who possesses one of the most distinctive younger voices in contemporary gay lit, transcends the familiar with heartbreaking poignancy. His language is spare and evocative, his
. . . a dark and dreamlike (self-)portrayal of the sexual coming of age of a boy acutely aware that he doesn't fit the roughneck masculine mold into which his Southern military hometown forces its sons. . . Its feverish self-portrait seizes center stage.
. . . A poignant and semi-autobiographical novel. . . Martin's highly poetic writing style is an example of high-brow literature in its prime.
At school the boy-narrator tries to fit in, to be accepted, but he is different. Too small to be one of the boys he often hangs out with the girls and takes a terrible teasing from the school ground bullies. He does not find football exciting. He prefers singing and dancing.
It's the 1980s in the southern USA. Boys are supposed to learn how to be men: violent, unfeeling, football playing heterosexuals. Sports are difficult for the narrator who suffers from extreme allergies which require medication and special breathing equipment to keep his respiration active. He is separated from the normal kids by health, by wealth, by broken family, and by interests as he grows into puberty and sexual awareness. Into his life comes a new step-father. Large, muscular, macho. "I don't like our step-father."
It only took ten seconds to change the toilet paper roll when someone used the last of it. You do it every single time, don't forget. this was just one of the reasons why he would punish me. another was when I wouldn't take the time to just lift the toilet seat up before I go to the bathroom, when I walk in there in the middle of the night. He can tell I've been in there, he says. He listens for me. Waits for me to come out. Then he goes in there to check.
Wikipedia tells us that Martin holds a BA from the University of Georgia, an MFA from The New School, and a PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center. His doctoral dissertation, which dealt with the work of post-modern writer Kathy Acker, was awarded The Irving Howe Prize for Best Dissertation Involving Politics and Literature in 2007. He teaches at The New School University and in the MFA Program at Goddard College.
Some critics assign the work to the New Narrative movement, a movement started in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The writers focus on experimenting with the narrative using fragmented stories, meta-text, and other techniques that are traditionally considered more “poetic.” Writing in the New Narrative movement is known for explicit descriptions of sex and identification with the physicality of the author. The New Narrative movement includes many gay and lesbian authors.
Personally, I find no reason to categorize the book in one kind of literature or another. Once You Go Back is literature. And it is good. And it can do good, by asking us to pay attention to categorizing people as well as literature. Our moral certainty can have devastating results as a study published (February 2010) in the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, based on research from the University of Montreal, reports. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual (GLB) teenagers are more than twice as likely to think about killing themselves or to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.
© 2010 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.