What we can expect from a good short story collection is usually equivalent to the amount of time and energy we’re willing to put into it. Sometimes they’re a hastily arranged assortment of stories that do nothing more than display the writer’s magic tricks, and sometimes they’re finely-tuned masterworks, a dozen or so finely polished gems in a cedar storage box. No matter what, the short story collection is a tough beast to understand. We can take them individually, piece-by-piece, absorb their nutrients for what they have to offer, and we can put the book away.
There are rare instances, no matter how experienced we might feel, when we encounter a collection of consistently strong, beautiful, breathtakingly tragic variations on a theme so clearly captured in a quote from the final story in Lee Martin’s remarkable new book The Mutual UFO Network, “Dummies, Shakers, Barkers, Wanderers”:
Maybe the best God could do was to align the universe so that all those who suffered could find one another.
It’s these glimmer of gold in the 12 patches of Martin’s literary patchwork quilt that linger longest with the reader. We know these characters, distant literary cousins of the lonely men and women brought to life by Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Richard Ford. They all roam the same flatlands or urban landscapes, caught up in the tragic cycle of romantic hopelessness that comes from the useless strain of optimism inherent in great short story characters. Things have to get better. They’re the scam artists in the title story, who sell Bicentennial Rocks and photoshopped videotapes of UFOs to gullible followers. They’re the mentally troubled young man in “Across the Street”, trying to blend in with the scenery and dying from inside. They’re residents of the town in “The Last Civilized House””
…a town where everybody’s flaws were fair game for the loafers and the busybodies, everybody looking for a chance to be grateful that their own lives were in order compared to those of their neighbors.
Lee Martin’s people are always looking at things they shouldn’t be seeing. In the title story, the son of the scam artists takes walks during lonely winter nights as a way to connect with people. It’s criminal, he knows, but it’s how he connects to his own family home and those of his neighbors. The truth of what he is in his neighborhood (a peeping tom) cannot be covered up by his assurances to them that his motives were pure. They only wanted to know how he perceived their lives. In “Belly Talk”, a son enjoys rides with his father high up in the cab of his tank truck:
Jackie thought it was fine to be able to see into the cars they met… He made notes of their shoes… He thought each pair more magnificent than the one before it.
It’s these beautiful connections Martin’s people make between perceived reality and concrete truth that makes the conclusions to his stories that much more profound. These types of narratives are difficult to pull off only because the sad end results aren’t often earned. The unfortunate truth of many short story writers who don’t need to be named is that they seem more comfortable in fabricating variations on a method and style than aiming for truth. Martin’s in full control of both the rhythm and blues in each story. He is the craftsman, the master architect, and those skills and Martin’s adherence to his primary mission — to tell a story worth telling — are what make this collection so thrilling.
Where the older masters Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner built literal landscapes, complete with visual maps, they seemed more dependent on that topography, on that rugged geography. They built their characters to meet the demands of their physical environments. Lee Martin continues in the link of literary craftsmen, going back to Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, who understood that it wasn’t just about a neighborhood. It wasn’t just about a desired zip code or an adherence to story structure still holdovers from the 19th century.
The characters in The Mutual UFO Network could be cousins, estranged ex-in-laws, sharing a cultural code of ethics that aren’t married to a particular literary style or era. Martin has built a world of visual eavesdroppers, and tragic death in “Love Field” and “Death in Paradise”. In “Drunk Girl in Stilettos”, a stylized comic noir that wouldn’t be out of place in a ’70s-era Robert Altman film, our hero can’t hide his admiration as he tells of watching Lily (the girl who inspired the title), at her father’s wake:
That’s when I saw the most wonderful thing. Lily, still wobbly on those stilettos… made her way to her daddy’s casket… stood up straight, her back to all the ugliness we’d wrought behind her, and she had that moment…
This is what we get in The Mutual UFO Network, moments of wonder and reflection. What separates Martin from the rest of the pack, from some writers who’d rather sell a stylized sheen than stories that can exist on their own as well as part of a bigger universe, is that he doesn’t impose himself into them. These stories are composed, crafted, told with both professional detachment and profound emotional resonance. In “Across the Street”, the characters gather on the street to witness what they call the “comet of the century”. Jim, the troubled son, lives in the assurance that “I’m in my neighborhood… I’m in my neighborhood and these are my neighbors.” In “Love Field”, a grieving mother encounters her well-meaning neighbor, still early in the days of loss and darkness, and breaks hearts with just a few words:
‘You saw something in her, didn’t you?’ she said. ‘That day when she was crying and you sang to her. You saw something pretty in her.’
It’s rare these days to encounter stories that will surprise us, turn the corner and walk down unexpected avenues. In “Belly Talk”, trauma and abuse are evoked in the most subtle of shades. A father feeds oranges to his son, a woman dances to the old song “You Belong to Me”, trying to recapture impossibly romantic moods. These shades are effective, but the story is mostly concerned with the difficulties clearly communicating in even the most basic ways:
Jackie had read in his ventriloquists manual that people once thought that ventriloquist’s sounds come from their stomach — belly talk — as if they had swallowed words whole as if everything they had kept inside was now speaking.
This is what makes Martin’s stories resonate so clearly, punches us in the gut at times and leaves us reeling for equilibrium yet grateful for having met these characters. In “Real Time”, a couple have trouble communicating with each other. The man (Del) reveals himself to convicts through long pen pal letters and it’s indicative of a bad character trait his wife doesn’t hesitate to point out. He will fall for anything:
Deep down he imagined that was the case, and though it shamed him to be the convict’s patsy, he couldn’t resist the small, clear truth in all their stories: once they had been different people.
In his letters to the prisoners he sends money and reveals “…ordinary things… from his days on the mail route…” that he hopes will connect him, but it doesn’t happen.
There’s grace, wonder, and small truths embedded within each story in The Mutual UFO Network. Connections once strong now prove irreparable. Communication comes only through furtive side-glances or stolen glimpses into a restricted private life. Martin’s characters are not hopelessly desperate or doomed to fall through the black hole vortex of dark fiction. He doesn’t pander to reader’s expectations or desires. Instead, his people and their landscape are alive and well, awestruck by the ineffability of grace yet realistic and world-weary enough to understand that not everything is beautiful. So long as they persevere, something else will always come along.