BOOK REVIEW / A good time had by all: Fucking Martin - Dale Peck: Chatto & Windus, pounds 9.99

TALKING about titles is not quite the thing, but Fucking Martin - this one is meant to be provocative, and is indeed hard to ignore. On one level it could not be more nakedly direct; yet it is also ambiguous. Fucking Martin: is that an activity or an invective?

From the title onwards, in fact, alternative readings are the key to Dale Peck's aesthetic - one so sophisticated and, for the most part, so masterfully realised that it is hard to believe Peck is only 25. This is his first full-length work but, ingeniously, it functions both as a novel and as a collection of short stories.

Simplified to the most straightforward reading, the chapters constitute a history of the narrator's (a man named John) sexual relationships: with Susan, an early girlfriend, whom he sleeps with again at the end; with a boy who fleetingly stays in his parents' house during John's adolescence; with his stepfather; with various other male partners, one of whom showers him with jewels in a fantastical New York penthouse, while another works nightshifts in small-town America, trying to scrape together enough dollars to escape; and, centrally, with Martin, his long-term lover who contracts Aids and whom he cares for until he dies in a graphic, tragic scene. In America, as has been pointed out, the book was called Martin and John.

Actually, the narrative is not so simple. Almost all these lovers are called Martin, for starters. Their individuality is blurred by the many parallels with which Peck laces his stories, and by the way he exploits the ambiguity of the pronoun 'he', which compounds fathers and lovers - as did the sexual abuse of John's childhood. The text's confusion of Martins echoes John's confounding of lovers as he obsessively seeks a substitute for the one Martin he loved and lost.

Even the assumption that John is himself the same from one story to the next is thrown into doubt. Yet Peck tantalises us with coincidences that suggest a single character. How many Johns can there be with maimed right hands? The uncertainties of identity are disorientating and intriguing. Odd details recur like fetishes (a scarred face, a wheezing air conditioner), and this steady repetition brilliantly shows how apparent trivialities accrue a weight of associations and form a past we cannot shake off.

Set in different socio-economic strata and locations, the tales also present a panorama of American gay men: Johns and Martins everywhere, sharing common experiences but with endlessly varied family histories and formative sexual encounters. The stories, beyond that, stand as John's cathartic reinventions of his life: they are alternative self-images.

Peck explores painful, intertwined issues - identity and family, sex and violence, love and death - with a thoughtfulness that is offset by the striking simplicity of his style. With the exception of a few over-abstract or vague sentences ('propelled by the weight of everything I'd lost and hinting somehow at things I had yet to gain'), the occasional weak chapter heading ('Always and Forever'), and a few too many self-conscious references to the writing process, Peck's work manages to be acute, dense and seemingly artless.

It is intense and emotional, but achieves its effects by preferring factual statement and a tone of neutrality to the free flow of feelings. Peck can handle notoriously difficult subjects - Aids, child abuse and sado-masochistic sex not just explicitly, but with a sincerity free of all melodrama. As he orchestrates a structural puzzle of fictions within fictions, he also moves towards a heart-wrending autobiographical truth. 'Dale?' whispers Susan, unsure if John is crying in the dark.

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