Book Review: EASIEST IF I HAD A GUN by Michael Gerhard Martin

 photo download_zpswa3mxpcb.png Easiest If I Had A Gun
by Michael Gerhard Martin
Alleyway Books, 2014

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

If I’ve ever encountered a title that instantly sets the tone for a story collection, it’s “Shit Weasel is Late for Class.” The first tale in Easiest If I Had a Gun is an angry, bitter story of self-loathing from the mouth of a bullied high school nerd. Cheery stuff.

But he’s not the only one who’s mad. Michael Gerhard Martin’s stories are an anthology of brokenness—of characters who lash out and fight back against their surroundings and the people that abuse them. Oftentimes, their abusers are their loved ones, and that only made each tale resonate deeper with me. I felt their sadness. Their “otherness.” Indeed, each story details a life—the unspoken lives of the ones who oftentimes can’t speak for themselves. The outsiders, the misfits, and the discontent.

Seemingly standard fare when it comes to literary fiction, right? But Martin’s characters consistently haunt with all their detail and personality. They’re frighteningly real. From the bullied nerd Josh in “Shit Weasel,” to the discontented craftswoman Elsa, who deals with her Alzheimer’s rattled father in “The Strange Ways People Are,” and petty theft in “Made Just for Ewe!” The final story, “Dreamland,” introduces Emilie, a high school girl who tries to find solace in her artwork, after a lifetime of caring for an alcoholic mother.

Let’s get back to that first story though. You know, “Shit Weasel is Late for Class,” which, as I’ve alluded to, is one of my favorite titles I’ve read in years. The first painfully descriptive sentences: “After fifth period theology, Brian McVey backs me up against a painting of the Virgin Mary and smacks me around while his toady, Billy Moyer, calls color. I think it’s because I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance.”

In stark detail, Michael Gerhard Martin creates a high school scenario that’s all too real—the thoroughly unpopular kid, driven to suicidal despair by his harassers, brings a gun to school. Thankfully, he never uses it. Instead, the reader watches as something much more subtle occurs—a slow, creeping transformation that hardens the protagonist into the contemptuous bully he’d always hated. It’s a brutal high school reality—the oppressed become the oppressors, if given the opportunity. But really, it’s just a human reality. The fact that it takes place in a high school setting is almost incidental.

These are characters that know longing inside and out. For instance, the protagonist in “Seventy-Two-Pound Fish Story” is a hyperactive, kind of annoying kid that wants more than anything to go fishing with his dad. When his distant father pawns him off on another father-and-son fishing trip, the boy finds himself simultaneously obsessed and repulsed by his new surrogate fishing family. “I wanted to crawl up on Lute’s lap and bury my face in his shirt, and I was disgusted by him.”

In terms of setting, Easiest If I Had a Gun takes place around Pittsburgh. The city, the suburbs, the dusty pits and valleys of the Alleghenies. There’s one instance in “Bridgeville” where Jack, the protagonist, attempts a surprise visit up to Indiana University of Pennsylvania—a last-ditch attempt to salvage his relationship with his emotionally distant girlfriend. Because it’s Halloween in Western Pennsylvania, however, a snowstorm predictably strikes out of nowhere, nearly running him off the road several times. How many times has that happened to me on the turnpike? Too many. It’s one of the myriad details that allow these stories to hit close to home.

Aside from all this, the writing itself is beautiful. I’m a sucker for great imagery: “The boat stank of fish and men and diesel fuel. Paint peeled from its sides in long strips. Rainbows hung in water so full of trash there wasn’t room for fish to swim.” Gross, but a fantastic sentence.

The book’s not just gorgeous writing and darkness and gloom, though. There are nuggets of humor speckled throughout that had me cackling. And the final story ends on an unexpectedly sweet note—one that had me smiling, rather than furrowing my eyebrows in concern, like I had for much of the rest of the collection. A strange meeting of two of the most heart-wrenching stories that brought the collection’s world into full focus, and made it seem that much more real.

For a shorter collection of fiction, Easiest If I Had a Gun consumes the reader—every page draws you deeper into the broken world of our backyards and our steel mills. With all their faults and their anger and their hurt, these characters mattered to me.


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