Here's the good news. For a second novel by an unknown writer, "The Crying Heart Tattoo" has received an impressive amount of early promotion: A special advance reading edition for reviewers and booksellers, a generous advertising and publicity budget, a substantial first printing. The publisher clearly believes in the book and has gone out on a limb for it; fiction doesn't often get such strong backing these days, and when it does, attention should be paid.
Here's the bad news. "The Crying Heart Tattoo" falls far short of its billing. It's a book for adolescents, of the real or the arrested variety--a book that may well appeal to those thousands of college kids who seek intellectual diversion in "Mastering Rubik's Cube" or "Garfield Gains Weight," but that any reasonably mature reader will recognize as sappy claptrap. It's as squishy and squeezeable as Charmin, and every bit as interesting.
"The Crying Heart Tattoo" is "Love Story" with a twist: The woman is 20 years older than the man. Otherwise, the two books are of a piece. Although David Martin is a better writer than Erich Segal, he inhabits the same world of adolescent romanticism and manipulative sentimentality. Like Segal, he has a sure nose for the fatuous aphorism; where Segal gave us "love means never having to say you're sorry," Martin weighs in with "there's no excuse for being mean with the stories you tell, 'cause you can make the stories come out any way you want," and "getting there is more than half the fun." His novel is like an overeager puppy; it wants so desperately to be liked that eventually you want to give it a swift kick in the behind.
Sonny, the narrator, begins as follows:
"When I was 14, I began what turned out to be a lifelong love affair with Felicity Annabel Arlington Jones. For a year before I met her, she was only a name to me--that strange and florid signature written across the entire width of the page, at the bottom of letters she sent from New York City to my father. Then she moved to the prairie, into a little square house that was half a mile down a flat, straight road from where I lived. She was 34 when our affair began, an affair that survived four marriages (three of 'em mine) and 36 years. My sister called from Illinois yesterday morning at seven to tell me it was over. I was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking grapefruit juice and looking out the window. The sky promised snow."
The news is that Felicity is dead and that her last words--spoken to Sonny's sister--were: "Your brother broke my heart." Her death sets Sonny, who is now 50 and living in New York, off on a long trail of reminiscence about his years with and without Felicity. This reminiscence is interspersed with chapters from a fairy tale that Felicity told him over the years, the story of a primitive woman named Graveda and her search for love: "The story was . . . like our child and, like a child, it gave us something to talk about, gave us a reason for being together."
Felicity, we are to believe, is a magical figure, larger than life (literally so, for a while), a bawdy Earth Mother who produces in Sonny a torrent of sexual passion and Deep Thought:
"Felicity is the one who made me want to link up with the ever-branching river that connects everything that lives, leading from the single point of creation, diverging and looping into 10,000 tributaries--wheat and whales and all living things--as it heads for the end of life or eternity, whichever comes first. She always made it sound so wonderful that now I want my role in the whole drama to be a lasting part. I want to add my contribution to the river and send it downstream to the delta, wherever and whenever that might be; I don't want to end up a little offshoot that concludes with me."
So his "contribution" is the story of Graveda and her lover Genipur--which is to say, hardly any contribution at all. David Martin means well in this novel, heaven knows, but he has nothing to say that has not been said before, and he certainly has not found an interesting way to say it. His attempt to give a mythic dimension to the story of Felicity and Sonny by paralleling it with the tale of Graveda and Genipur accomplishes nothing except to give us two silly stories when one was more than enough.
"The Crying Heart Tattoo" may well find an audience. It's got a little bit of sex, a little bit of wise-guy humor and a lot of easy uplift; the formula has sold in the past, and it may sell again. To those who buy I can only say: Help yourselves.