In May 2007, while Gregory Martin played with his two young sons in Albuquerque, his parents were having a fierce argument at their home in Spokane, Washington. When they stopped quarreling, Martin’s father went upstairs and swallowed a bottle of pills, landing him later that night in the local intensive care unit. He came out of his coma and confronted Martin, once he’d arrived at his father’s bedside, with two astonishing confessions. First, when Martin’s father was a young boy, his father had sexually abused him over the course of ten years, between the ages four and fourteen. When Martin tried to comfort him, his father said, “I’m not done.” The second confession was that during the prior thirty-nine years of marriage to his wife, Martin’s mother, he’d been engaging in a constant stream of anonymous affairs with men–over a thousand of them, by his own calculation. This was the first time he’d ever admitted either of these things to any member of his family.
If it sounds like I’m giving the story away, rest assured that I’m not, for this is not a story of confessions so much as it is a story of the fallout that follows them. How does one explain to two young sons that their grandparents are suddenly divorced? How does one explain to them why the divorce took place? When one son learns, via the publication of one of the essays from this book in The Sun, that his grandfather attempted suicide, how does one explain that his grandfather once wanted to kill himself? These are questions that Gregory Martin has to face, in addition to his own about the events, and he chronicles his attempts to reconcile these issues along with his relationship with his father throughout these pages.
In one essay, “Hypotheticals,” Martin writes, “I didn’t want a different father. I wanted to find a way to love my father the way I had always loved him. But that was no longer possible. I would have to find new ways to love him.” This would prove difficult, however, especially after his father broke into his mother’s house to reclaim his things. It would even prove difficult after his father, post-divorce, had developed healthy relationships with men–no longer in hiding, but nonetheless representing a fundamentally different father than the one Martin thought he knew. Still, in the end, Martin and his father are able at least to heal a few wounds and to grow together, with Martin going so far even as to rekindle some of affection between his father and his sons when his father comes to visit.
The organization of the book is unusual and even haphazard. It’s only chronological in the loosest sense, being that it opens with his father’s attempted suicide and closes with their relationship on the mend. Emails sent between Martin and his father pepper the pages, as do photographs of his family, the treehouse that he builds for his sons, movie stars and poets to whom he looks for solace and reminiscence. (Martin looks in particular to Walt Whitman, whose open sexual explorations provide a sort of model for how such experiences might be approached in writing.)
To some, the organizing principle might seem like little more than a set of disparate emotions and ideas moving all around a central theme, but perhaps that’s as it should be. This is a book that works like the mind itself in a state of trauma, attacking its focal point from all angles, then circling around to try again. In the course of this dance, Stories for Boys becomes a tale of anger and sadness, confusion and wonder, and then, only in the end, once all the possibilities have been exhausted, into one of familial reconciliation against all odds.
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