by: A.m. Larks
To assume that Lee Martin is writing about little green men and flying saucers would be a faux pas, but Martin is writing about things that are no less alien to us: our fellow human beings. The Mutual UFO Network explores the complexity of human relationships, which is as terrifying, strange, and incomprehensible as any extraterrestrial lifeform.
Martin’s focus is rooted in the terrestrial and focuses on life in, what is for some people, an alien world: the country. This collection is set in many of those “flyover” states that are often eschewed by the coasts. And while Martin uses the stereotypical country vernacular that belies old-fashioned values, he does not turn a blind eye to the heartbreak, hard times, and tragedy that coexist with that vernacular. The world of The Mutual UFO Network is as full of farmers and hunters as it is with meth-head sons and cheating spouses. It would be a grievous error to see it only as a collection filled with idyllic country folk leading a life punctuated by anecdotal sayings.
The juxtaposition of dialogue and plot points allows Martin to explore the people he has created and their complex relationships. The structure of each story establishes the reader’s attention on the characters and their interactions and not on the events or language. Again and again, Martin introduces his characters with just enough information to avoid confusion. In the title story, “The Mutual UFO Network,” Martin introduces the reader to a family in the midst of a marital separation that is more sad than contentious, and the narrator is the only child, a son who is, quite literally, in the middle:
“You don’t have to love him,” my mother had told me. “There’s no law.”
But the truth was I did love him—at least, that’s what I called the ache that stuck in my throat every time I saw him, when he thought he was alone, tip his head and cover his face with his hands. Or each morning when I came into the kitchen and saw a place set for me at the breakfast table.”
The above complexity is exactly what Martin is exploring: the unclear and convoluted feelings that are inherent in our relationships, love mixed with blame and pity.
Fifty-five years together, fifty-two of them in this house. Retired now, still in reasonably good health, no scrapes with the law, property taxes always paid on time, lawn tended in the summertime, walks and driveway kept clear in the winter. Good neighbors. Now, as he continued to follow those tracks in the snow—Red Wing, Red Wing, Red Wing— Ancil felt at loose ends. Someone had Lucy and him in his sights.
So she did what she needed to do. She found a doctor in St. Louis who for the right price would perform a dilation and curettage and make the baby go away. She asked her sister, Eva, to drive her, Eva who had been dead now for years, Eva who said to her, “Oh, honey, this just breaks my heart.”
No subject is off limits or out-of-bounds. In “Belly Talk,” Martin covers the harrowing effects of child abuse and inaction. Jackie, a disabled boy, and Eugene Marks are classmates and friends, but Jackie’s family and Mr. Marks have a problematic relationship. Times are hard. People are simply trying to survive. And, so, they say nothing to him about his treatment of Eugene.
“We knew all about it,” his mother said.
“We knew Bob Marks was whipping that boy.”
“A lot of people knew. It wasn’t just us.”
“Yes, a lot of us, and not one of us said a word.”
“And I told him not to think of it. Doesn’t he have enough to face? Don’t we all? How ugly can the world be and any of us still be able to stand it?”
Despite the tragedies, Martin also brings to life the absurdly funny parts of country life, the situations and ironies that occur only in rural areas with dry counties and small towns. In “Drunk Girl in Stilettos,” the narrator addresses the audience with this statement by way of his own introduction:
Odds are you’ve heard of me. Back in the summer, I got arrested for DUI. No big news there, just that I happened to be driving a barstool at the time. That’s right. A barstool. Welded to a frame and powered by a five-horsepower Craftsman lawn mower engine. Topped out at thirty-eight miles per hour. Slick as can be. For a couple of weeks there, I drove it around. Didn’t have much choice. I’d lost my license, and the only way to get from here to there was to hoof it or to ride that barstool. We live in a dry town, and it’s five miles to the nearest tavern. A man gets thirsty? Doesn’t have the legal right to drive a car? You do the math.
Martin’s stories are not a quick-to-the-point affair; they are like his prose: long, savory, complex affairs that are meant to evoke as much joy as empathy. The takeaway is that location does not thwart misfortune, that people who two-step are as relatable as those who floss. We are all human.
AM Larks writes fiction and nonfiction. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the former Blog Editor of The Coachella Review and contributes reviews and interviews to, and is a reader for, TCR. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside–Palm Desert’s low-residency program. She lives in Northern California.