Book Review: 'Losing Everything' by David Lozell Martin
Friday, January 30, 2009
By David Lozell Martin
Simon & Schuster. 201 pp. $24
There are certain things to keep in mind while reading this memoir by David Lozell Martin.
First, a sizable section of the population simply won't believe his childhood recollections, in the way that they couldn't believe Augusten Burroughs's "Running With Scissors." If your life has been relatively uneventful, short on poverty, brutality and insanity, you might as well pass this book by. You won't understand it; you won't believe it.
Second, in reading any memoir, the reader is asked not just to evaluate the tale, but the person who's telling it. By Page 92 of this engaging, exasperating memoir, I found myself fishing around for my tattered, out-of-date Ex-Wife's Union card. The second part of this narrative is like spending time in a low bar with a puffy guy in a gabardine suit, while he grabs at your knee and tells you his wife doesn't understand him. His wife is certainly not well served in this story.
Beyond that, the title itself -- "Losing Everything" -- brings up an interesting question: What does that even mean? In this context, it means that David Martin, who had depression diagnosed but steadfastly refused to take his meds, had, after considerable literary success, lost all his money, and his second wife struck up an affair. He then rolled around on the dining room floor and almost killed himself, but didn't. That's "losing everything"? Please! I don't want to be rude, but doesn't that describe half of America right now? Of course, Martin didn't know that a financial crash would come when he was writing this, and it doesn't take away from his individual hurt, but it does render his situation in no way spectacular or unique.
"Losing Everything" is divided into three parts: Martin's god-awful childhood; his life as a grown-up, in which he suffers through 18 years of a "bad" marriage, enjoys another 18 years in a "good" one and then takes a hard fall; and finally, his tentative return to life as a normal human being. (He's in his early 60s now.)
His childhood is indeed ghastly, but very nicely described. His mother is a rip-roaring, certifiably crazy person, who is eventually committed when the author is 14. His father, to my mind, is something far worse: prone to occasional demonstrations of affection, sane, maybe, but mean as a snake. He's a steelworker who yearns to be a writer, a man too shy to go into a grocery store but perfectly willing to beat up his wife and son; a man whose major hobby, besides reading paperback books, is pitching screaming fits until he can scream no longer. He's a cheesy, second-rate, working-class bully, in other words, but fun to read about. This first part is what respectable readers won't believe. Their lives aren't like that.
But if you've been raised by wolves, how do you grow up to be at least a semi-decent human being? In Part 2, the author offers a refreshing defense of gin for releasing him from a crippling sense of shyness, for allowing him to get up the nerve to actually write instead of just yearning to write and for giving him the chance to get lucky with countless beautiful women. You don't read that kind of treatise very often, but it glows with truth.
The trouble is, at the same time he was drinking himself blind, falling in bed with some very miscellaneous ladies, holding down a full-time job while staying up all night to do his writing, he was married to his first wife, who doesn't get a name or more than two pages of Martin's attention in this memoir. The "alcohol lubricated my way toward multiple infidelities," he writes stiffly. "I was uninterested in the suburban family activities she loved. I spent every waking sober hour at the typewriter." After 18 years he leaves her and scarcely mentions her again.
By this time the author has sold some books and seems to think pretty highly of himself. He marries the other woman, buys a big farm, a lot of farm equipment and turns to writing thrillers for money. His wife maintains about 20 horses -- to what end we never discover; this book is all about him. Soon enough, they run out of money. His wife won't get an office job. He neglects his writing (one suspects he's run out of material).
When things get unpleasant, his wife starts an affair, or maybe it's just a flirtation. You'd think the sun had stopped shining and Godzilla had risen, seaweed-covered from the depths, and begun to deliver indecipherable messages from the Devil himself. This is when Martin rolls around on the floor, holds a gun to his head and scares his second wife and the children from his first marriage. The cops are called in, and court orders are issued. This section is marked by an appalling (if amusing) lack of insight. He seems entirely unwilling or unable to compare his 70,000 infidelities from his first marriage to his second wife's only dalliance. And Wife No. 2, it must be said, is also never named, never visually described, never directly quoted. The people around him -- except for his parents -- are never more than literary cardboard.
It would be too easy and too mean-spirited to criticize the author's self-help advice in Part 3. But it's impossible not to notice the self-dramatization of a man who takes on the mantle of King Lear just because he loses his wife and his money. Women (and men) are a dime a dozen in this world. There's little enough money left to be lost. On the other hand, innocent children are starving, dying from bombs and disease. That might qualify as a form of "everything," if the author could see outside of his head for a minute. Somebody should have been telling Martin all along, "Man up, honey! What happens to you isn't everything." Maybe realizing that fact is the missing link to actually growing up.
This Sunday in Book World
· Azar Nafisi moves beyond Lolita in Tehran.
· An obsessive-compulsive woman counts on love.
· The men who struck liquid gold in Texas.
· A perfectly formed history of penmanship.
· And a roundup of new mysteries.