by Eugene Marten
Reviewed by Dylan Hicks
A writer, some say, is a person who knows the names of things: the name of the tree and the name of the window through which the tree is seen; the name of the car parked by the tree and the name of the child who falls from the tree; the name of the bone and the name of the break. Then there's another view that holds that if names are powerful, then, like a boyfriend or the car keys when you really need to get to work, they'll be more powerful in their absence.
These are matters of concern to Eugene Marten and the antihero of his latest novel, Firework. Like its predecessor, Waste (Ellipsis Press, 2008), the book depicts a deeply disturbed commoner -- this time a bureaucrat, road-tripper, family man, and right-wing extremist (of a sort) named Jelonnek. We come to know Jelonnek in subtle shades during the novel's picaresque section:
Words appeared in Jelonnek's mind, sage and gulch, words he vaguely knew and thought of as Western words, but he didn't know if they were Wyoming words, and maybe if you knew what to call things you would feel less lonely, or maybe the words just got in the way and only if you lost the right ones would you find yourself in the distance.
This isn't entirely clear, nor does it intend to be, but it provides one key to Firework
: while there's much detailed description, motivation remains unspoken, dialogue often reads like a transcript with parts blacked out, and the names of things and people important to Jelonnek are omitted, usually replaced with circumlocutions or epithets.
The book begins in 1992, in a jail where Jelonnek, arrested for soliciting a prostitute, spends a few miserable, scatological days. We then become privy to his only moderately sunnier routine, set in an unnamed city (Cleveland, we deduce) with a woman we know only as "the girl Jelonnek lived with." At home he massively guzzles beer and watches porn or an old videotape of his hero, Number Nineteen (quarterback Bernie Kosar), leading the Browns to a comeback victory. He works for the city in an isolated storehouse of municipal forms -- these are named exhaustively -- where every so often he gets visitors, such as a fleeting African-American love interest called "the girl from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles" (the book is full of potential titles for Stieg Larsson imitators). During slow periods at work, which are frequent, he works on an inept screenplay called Armageddon Zero
As a rule, Jelonnek is passive, perplexed, autistic, and sometimes a lovable loser, though one capable of unexpected acts of cruelty and violence. Although Marten doesn't dwell on Jelonnek's childhood, we learn a few things in passing: that his mother hanged herself, that home became a "bleak fortress of hate." This last, straining phrase is characteristic of the book's mood but not of its prose, which is regularly enlivened by an inspired word choice or observation: a road is "sutured with railroad tracks," a woman lets out "a laugh so hysterical only hers was possible," on the roadside Jelonnek stands "under more stars than he'd ever ignored in his life."
Jelonnek's life plods and unravels against a television backdrop of atrocities from the Bosnian War, and, more immediately, incendiary racial tensions following the Rodney King verdict and uprising. Routinely party to appalling expressions of uncensored racism, Jelonnek is himself a racist, though a complex or at least confused one. The book's pace quickens about a third of the way through, when Jelonnek leaves his brother's wedding to buy smokes with his sister's new boyfriend. They eventually pick up two black streetwalkers, and we realize that the boyfriend is not just overbearing but reckless and sadistic. After considerable violence and a car chase, Jelonnek impulsively comes to the aid of one of the prostitutes, then finds himself on the road with her and her pre-teen daughter. They wind up in another unnamed city (Portland), blowing through Jelonnek's retirement fund and living a strange and increasingly wretched version of American domesticity, during which they're terrorized by mysterious white supremacists.
Marten has given himself the challenge of sustaining a longish book about a man who is not charming, not bright, not often contemplative (except for his active, dark fantasy life), and not even especially interesting. A creep and a bore, you might say, though also a lonely man-child, and it's to Marten's credit that Jelonnek is often sympathetic as well as repulsive. Marten is also adept at writing knowledgably through Jelonnek's confusion; at a free-jazz concert, for instance, we hear the music with a connoisseur's ears and feel Jelonnek's bafflement. Jelonnek is mostly surrounded by types and stereotypes, and it's again impressive that these figures become vivid while remaining rigidly cast. Marten's use of black dialect is fairly assured, as is his treatment of his protagonist's tangle of racism: how Jelonnek is seduced and incensed by black culture and people, how he wants to be both a savior and a destroyer. The result is an inventive portrayal of derangement and -- in a nice paradox -- an engaged book about detachment, a novel rather like a jigsaw puzzle with no guiding picture on the box and many pieces artfully withheld.