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Easiest if I Had a Gun

Fiction  |  Stories
135 pages
5” x 8” Perfect-bound trade paperback
ISBN 978-0-692-29400-0
First Edition
Review Copy: Paperback
Alleyway Books
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Available HERE
Review by Laura Citino

The title of this collection is only one answer to a question asked again and again in its pages: How do we take control of lives that are small, insignificant, painful, impossible? For some characters, it would be easiest if they had a gun, or a friend, or a steady job. For others, the answer lies elsewhere. Michael Gerhard Martin’s debut collection, including the winner of the 2013 James Knudsen Prize for Fiction, “Shit Weasel Is Late for Class,” tells nine stories of agency and survival in difficult circumstances.

The characters in these stories, downtrodden and scrappy as they appear on the surface, are all deeply wounded in some way. They organize and shuffle themselves around this wound, which often manifests itself as a lack: of parental approval, of love, of hope. They skirt around this lack like a gaping hole in their living room floor. In “Made Just for Ewe!” a woman in a racist small town becomes obsessed with the tiny angel figurines she makes and sells at craft shows, and she is hardly the only one overly invested in the production of kitsch. The high school senior at the center of “Bridgeville” tries to hold on to the love—or at least, lust—of his short life after she goes to college and experiences things he can hardly imagine in his beat-up, working-class town.

One of the strongest stories in this collection is also the shortest. In “The Strange Ways People Are,” a woman takes care of her hospice-ridden father, with whom she has had a tumultuous relationship most of her life. As his mind fades, he starts to forget who Elsie is, and latches on to the mistaken perception that his daughter is actually his deceased wife, Elsie’s mother. Elsie observes this moment with an almost detached interest, as if she’s a little afraid to know what it might mean:

When we’re alone sometimes, I’m my mother and we are on vacation. At first it was hard because I miss her too, in spite of everything. Then it was easy, because I feel like a mother again taking care of him. It’s strange. That isn’t lost on me.
(p. 15)

As happens in many of these stories, it is fascinating to watch Elsie eventually find comfort in the strange sadness of her life. She uses her father’s delusion to get him to say the things she’s been wanting him to say her whole life: namely, that he approves of her choice to go to college and to be an independent woman. Of course, her self-awareness hurts her even more, as she says:

“I realize I am forty-six years old and playing dress-up for a senile old man who can afford to make promises like a politician.”
(p. 20).

A family of three sits at the center of “You Gotta Know When to Hold Em.” Our narrator’s father embraces the lifestyle of dirt and hard times created by work at the refinery; he’s an uncouth character who burps, farts, and makes crude jokes to survive his circumstances. The mother, on the other hand, tries to maintain her humanity through ignorance. She covers herself in perfume, wearing:

“a ton of it because she was paranoid about smelling like gas.”
(p. 40)

She turns a blind eye, holds her nose, and implores her son to stay out of the junkyard. Though the narrator follows his own storyline, he is more of an observational character, and the simple clarity with which he observes the crumbling of his parents’ marriage is honest and heartbreaking.

The source of all this downheartedness is, in the tradition of classic American short story writing, the towns and factories where these characters reside. Most of these stories explicitly reference small town Pennsylvania; mentions abound of oil refineries, working-class bars, and struggling public schools. The stage is set beautifully throughout. The opening of “Even the Dust” is an excellent example of this:

We took 195 down along the river past the airport and got off in Eddystone. I was quiet. I’d lost my job, and Dick was throwing me some laborer’s stuff, some nasty, dirty under-the-table demolition work in an abandoned foundry. There were chemicals involved, a huge, terrifying plastic tank bearing a sign in red foot-high letters (DANGER ACID), buckets and bins of caustics, black barrels marked with ominous symbols. And marijuana flowing through us like the lie that adversity makes you stronger. We were strong. The first hit of the day is sometimes the most important.
(p. 51)

It’s clear that setting is key. However, I felt like much of my understanding of place in this collection came from my own limited knowledge of Pennsylvania. “Ilka, Ilsa, Kostas, and Pie,” a voice-driven monologue about an old German restaurateur, was entertaining to read, but after so many place-specific hints and slang, I was ready for more context. The emphasis on place and the similarities between these characters made me read this almost like a linked collection or cycle of stories, and I found myself yearning for a stronger sense of that foundation throughout.

What sets this collection apart from familiar stories about hard factory work and harder home lives is the self-awareness of the characters. No one is fooling himself here, not even the kids. As they figure out how to cope with their lives, everyone knows it’s all just a Band-Aid. “Seventy-Two Pound Fish Story,” for example, is a skillful depiction of the pathological lying most of us go through as kids. The sixth-grade narrator knows he’s lying, and he knows that the adults around him know he’s lying, but that’s still preferable to admitting the real pain underneath: the lack of affection and love from his father, who outsources father/son time to a colleague instead of taking his own son out fishing. The dialogue is done extremely well, revealing much while saying little:

Lute said, “What grade you in, Amazing?”
I said, “Sixth.” Then I added, “But they’re thinking of moving me up.”
He said, “You should be proud of that.”
I said, “I guess.” I was a straight B and C student who had a hard time sitting still. I also tended to get other kids in trouble a lot.
He said, “What do you wanna be when you grow up?”
I said, “That’s a tough one. I was thinking about being a doctor, a surgeon, but everyone says that would be a waste of my I.Q.”
He looked out over the water.
(p. 62)

From the other stories in this collection, we can guess that this kid might not ever get the love from his father, or from any adult male, that he wishes. It doesn’t mean he’s going to stop lying. It’s the one thing that gives him a promise of a better life. For him, like many others in Easiest if I Had a Gun, the hope is worth the pain.

Laura Citino is a Staff Book Reviewer for The Volt. She is originally from southeastern Michigan and currently teaches English and writes in Terre Haute, Indiana. Laura received her MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Washington, and attended Western Michigan University for undergraduate, where she studied creative writing and German. Her fiction and nonfiction has been published online and in journals such as Midwestern Gothic, Passages North, Bluestem, and Sou’Wester, and she has previously served as a regular contributor for Bark.

• This book was given by the publisher to an Alternating Current staffer at AWP for review purposes. The reviewer does not know the publisher or the author and received the book from Alternating Current at random. • Permalink • Tag: The Volt •

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