Lee Martin, Break the Skin (New York: Crown, 2011). 272 pp. $24.00.
After it is all over, after the perpetrators have all been caught and tried and sentenced, one girl catches the eye of another in court and understands at once how easy it is to get swept up in a crime. “It was all about wanting to matter to someone,” she says, “wanting it so badly that you did things you never could have imagined, and you swore they were right, all for the sake of love.”
You don’t have to agree with the conclusion to Lee Martin’s fifth novel, or even find it convincing as an explanation why good people do bad things, to admire the execution of Break the Skin. Martin adapts the convention of alternating chapters — one of the basic formulae of contemporary American fiction — to tell the stories of two young women who are connected by love of the same man, although they are strangers to each other, living in two different parts of the country. It doesn’t hurt that Martin is so good at impersonating his women, poorly educated, working class, without resorting to either dialect or pity. (Full disclosure: Martin and I both teach at the Ohio State University, but I know him only through his published writing.)
Laney Volk is a high-school dropout living in Mt. Gilead, a small town located at the junction of U.S. 50 and state route 130 in southeastern Illinois. Laney says she is “as ordinary as bread from the wrapper,” despite a singing voice as big as Whitney Houston’s, which reminds her listeners that “no matter how scruffed up your life might be . . . you could still feel.” The music teacher and her mother urge Laney to “claim” her talent, or at least go to college, but she takes a job on the “gravedigger” shift at Walmart. When her mother warns that she is “on a fast track to nowhere,” Laney moves out and takes up residence in a double-wide trailer with Delilah Dade, whom she describes as “the pretty one,” but whom her mother describes as “trashy.” Rose MacAdow soon joins the household. A “big woman with a big heart,” Rose also works at Walmart. When Delilah takes up with Tweet Swain, a local rocker — the names are not the novel’s best feature — Laney just naturally takes up with Lester Stripp, a hanger-on with the band. And Rose is left alone with her bitterness.
Without transition or narrative juncture, the scene shifts to Denton, a small city on the edge of the Dallas metroplex (and home to North Texas University, where Martin taught before coming to Columbus). There Betty Ruiz (“most folks known me as Miss Baby”) finds a man wandering the streets in what is explained later as a fugue state. When she goes through his wallet, Miss Baby discovers that his name is Lester Stripp. She renames him Donnie True and reinvents his life for him. A tattoo artist with a salon called Babyheart’s Tats, Miss Baby tells him and everyone who will listen that they are married. What she is doing is crazy, she admits, but you must understand “how desperate I’d always been for a good man to watch over me.” Before long Lester (er, Donnie) is dragged into the family problems. A latter-day cattle rustler, Miss Baby’s brother Pablo has cheated his partner and is now on the run from both the police and a violent sociopath named Slam Dent. When the police come looking for him, they just naturally take an interest in the mysterious Donnie True.
In Mt. Gilead, the tangle of bitterness and jealousy ends with a double murder; in Denton, with a ferocious beating and the flight of a wanted man. Neither Laney nor Miss Baby seek out criminality, but they are both “so starved for love” that their lives “spin out of control.” On trial for her role in a conspiracy to commit murder, Laney is prepared to admit the truth:
There were all these lives going on in people and they didn’t even know it, all these lives festering just beneath the skin. The prick of a needle here or there, and everything you thought you weren’t could get out and stain you forever, could ripple out to other people — you could even swear you loved them — and hurt them in ways you never could have imagined. You could be that person you saw sometimes on the news, that person who’d done something unforgivable and could barely face it. Trust me, I wanted to say. It can happen.
Martin studiously keeps his own views to himself. A critic can’t help but wonder, though. Two of the most destructive trends in American culture are the decline of marriage and the loss of religious faith among the working poor. It is perhaps no accident that there is neither a church community nor an intact marriage in Break the Skin. “All for the sake of love,” as Lee Martin tragically shows, does nothing to provide “ragged lives” with social mobility or economic well-being or, sometimes, even simple ordinary freedom.