Life Is Other People
Tony Martin’s life has all the makings of a modern-day memoir. One of those life-story stories by some alcoholic, prostitute, or abuse victim you’ve never heard of, retelling their years of woe with smell of so many therapeutic dollars in their noses. Martin had a violent childhood, dealt with considerable nerd issues at school, discovered in his later years that he has haemochromatosis, and, in most parts of the world, nobody’s heard of him. Yet, despite these bestseller traits, he resists adding to the Woe Is Me Memoir Renaissance. Instead, his bumpy road to happiness is skirted in favour of something far more interesting.
(Incidentally, Martin is a hugely popular comedian in Australia, star of TV shows The D-Generation and The Late Show, director of the big screen comedy classic Bad Eggs (2003), and one-half of Fox-FM’s hugely successful Martin/Molloy radio show. None of this is mentioned in the book.)
Lolly Scramble—a party game where lollies, or candy, are tossed about for kids to pick up and eat—is made up of chronological vignettes relating key moments in Martin’s life. The book might be a memoir, but rarely is its writer centre stage. Early on, Martin resists talking about himself and his family in favour of mad discussions of those of his best friend, cute neighbour, and the weird religious kid. He doesn’t make a point of not discussing his family; other people’s, it seems, just have better stories.
Other people, though, are the real stars of Lolly Scramble, from Martin’s early days through martin’s 40-odd years. Friends Colin and Dale, neighbour Donna, her boyfriend Noel, Colin’s conservative mum and comical dad are among the “stars” of Martin’s youth; an entire amateur theatre company, a strange landlady who objects to Martin’s admiration of John Carpenter’s The Thing, a boss sharing names with a Tarzan actor, a loving German couple, and a bus load of Spinal Tap-resisters rule the second act. The third—Martin as adult—stars a shonky bloke who offers to fix Martin’s wrecked car, a genius chiropractor, a notary public, and a host of doctors, nurses, and patients sharing a ward with Martin as he undergoes haemochromatosis treatment.
Martin writes about each of these characters as though he telling their stories rather than his own. Somehow, though, and this is the real genius of the book, after each of them, a more complete picture of Martin emerges. As the book’s narrator, he assumes early on the observer position, relating conversationally and comically these life-moments. At the same time, though, the younger, character-self is also an observer, who stands back watches life happen. He listens when people talk, (his adoration of language and they way people express themselves is all over the book), he watches how they move and the results are something superb. The already intriguing becomes more so—the chapter featuring Gemini Man, Ben Murphy, on a New Zealand TV fundraiser is a standout—and banalities of life, like visiting a notary public, become fascinating and funny when viewed from Martin’s perspective:
The notary’s mighty John Hancock had its way with certificate after certificate of fuck-knows-what until, 15 well-subsidised exertions later, he collapsed, spent, a notary profligate awash in his own signatory largesse.
There aren’t any gags in the “Notary Public” chapter and yet it’s one of the funniest in the book. Uncanny recall abilities and a keen understanding of people’s actions and reactions mean Martin is endlessly capable of portraying others in their truest light, and, in turn, revealing himself in his. It’s all crazily hilarious but few standard jokes are told. Martin is so adept a storyteller and such a faultless observer, that in his world, or at least in Lolly Scramble, people are the joke and life its punchline.
This is all the more apparent in the book’s heartbreaking final chapter, “In the Eye of the Lolly Scramble”, about a Christmas shopping trip following a fight between Martin’s mother and stepfather and involving the kids:
I could tell my stepfather didn’t like having to strap the new kid. He had his little routine with his own kids all worked out—the patter, the timing, the force of the blows. It had been working for him for years. Now he was taking on someone new, a ring-in. He wasn’t across my punishment history. It hadn’t been forwarded from Te Kuiti. To me, it felt like he was holding back. It still hurt like a handful of Double Happys, but Les always seemed to come off worse.
Observation is once again paramount to the story’s resonance. It’s unknown until this point, but the book’s effectiveness and humour hinge on this rare sombre moment. Not for sympathy or condolence, but as revelation. At the chapter’s end, young Martin, angered by the fight, struggling to make sense of it—“It couldn’t just be us, could it?”—wanders through a toy store where he witnesses a store Santa losing control in front of a gathering of kids, piffing lollies at them as security guards restrain him. Martin the narrator and Martin the character both just watch. Hanging in the air, unspoken, are two things—that struggle occurs all over; and that if you just listen, or turn your head that little bit further around, the world will give you something to observe, to take in, and ultimately, to laugh at.