BOOK REVIEW / Just effing and blinding: Fucking Martin by Dale Peck, Chatto pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
THE HERO of Dale Peck's first novel has a childhood punctuated by the grimy Midwestern horrors familiar to anyone who has read a few contemporary American authors: he sees his mother miscarry bloodily when he is 10, is beaten up by his father a few years later ('So, Mr Prep School . . . what do you know about this?'), and watches his mother sink into alcoholism after her husband dies of cancer. The press release assures us that this is all autobiographical.

Not literally, though: the novel is actually a set of stories where the narrator is called John (although at one point he is called 'Dale', which sounds almost like a slip-up), his parents are called Ben and Henry, and John's lover is Martin. In one story, 'Henry' is an off-stage character, an early seducer of the narrator later run out of town; in another, 'Henry' is a fortyish man picked up by the narrator for a weekend of cathartic sadomasochistic (and safe) sex.

Martin appears variously as a teenager discovered in a barn who stays with the family for a few days; as his widowed mother's lover, seducing the adolescent narrator; and, finally, as a dream lover, a talented, wealthy and elegantly sensitive New Yorker, whom the narrator meets by presenting him with a rose while Martin plays the piano at a party. This Martin, unlike the others, persists for more than one chapter, until his death from Aids - itself a coy invitation for us to believe that this is the 'real' Martin, even if he does sound a little too good to be true. Peck self-consciously teases us as to whether it is.

But if the book is an attempt to express the reality of 'fucking Martin' as seen in the different fantasy disguises Peck constructs for him, you come away feeling short-changed. You do not necessarily get a fix on life by fooling around with the fictive process, and there is a depressing circularity in a book which - though redeemed by the occasional beauty of the writing, which in its measured elegiacs is at odds with the brash I- dare-you title - seems at times to exist only in order to justify its own vision.

John Updike has said that a writer's self- consciousness 'is really a mode of interestedness, that inevitably turns outward'. Dale Peck seems, in his self-consciousness, too wrapped up in himself: maybe this novel was written to get something out of his system.

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