In Firework, a novel that starts in the gutter and never once looks at the stars, Eugene Marten accomplishes two extraordinary feats. Not only does the book establish Marten, author of In the Blind and Waste, two other bleak miracles, as one of our finest contemporary prose stylists, but it also introduces its publisher, Tyrant Books, as one of our best purveyors of contemporary fiction.
The novel opens with a prostitution sting in the early nineties. Throughout the ensuing decade—beginning with the LA riots and ending with the Bush election—Jelonnek, the protagonist, finds himself in the middle of many other less-than-auspicious events. He sits in the backseat during a high-speed chase from a pimp on a rampage. He wakes one morning to find his house has been spray-painted with racial slurs. What happens between those two events cause such an appalling character, a misogynist and a racist and a criminal, to become somehow more of an appealing individual for the reader. Jelonnek is us after all. The personal tumult of his life brings him to the same place our national tumult has brought us now.
Marten’s prose also helps bring about pity for Jelonnek. Here is our laissez-faire Travis Bickle on a date with a black woman:
He wondered who else she might show him he was, in that light of her dark that lit him alone, and while he wondered he might have considered that she was about to leave, that if he was going to ask her now was the time, and then it didn’t matter because she asked him instead.
Elsewhere, the crisp, clean sentences combine with metaphoric turns of phrase to create a beautiful, surreal landscape, physically and emotionally. No one just shrugs. They “shrug catastrophically [and] the world with its billions teemed again.” Things don’t just burn. They “became fire, and the fire used him to make itself.” Language is a character in this novel.
Words appeared in Jelonnek’s mind, sage and gulch, words he vaguely knew and thought of as Western words, but he didn’t know if they were Wyoming words, and maybe if you knew what to call things you would feel less lonely, or maybe the words just got in the way and only if you lost the right ones would you find yourself in the distance.
Despite its thematic stronghold, however, Marten’s Firework displays evidence of larger aims. It’s not just about language; it’s about American language. It’s not just about culture; it’s about American culture. Tyrant Books and Firework have an actual mission, both in the sense of their carrying on with militaristic purpose and in the sense of their following a religious edict. The literary press as well as its second novel are each a call to arms as much as a declaration of faith.