Stories for Boys is Gregory Martin’s second memoir to examine the landscape of family. His first, Mountain City, maps his ties to a one-blink town in rural Nevada: the book is steady, spare, and clear-eyed. But the focus of this new probing—an interrogation of fatherhood back-dropped by shifting cultural mores—is closer, more jarring and fraught, and, for its risks, more lucid still.
Martin is the father of two sons, but the call to the hospital that begins this book welcomes not another newborn, but an awakened father. Or, to borrow Martin’s metaphor, a father unearthed. Either way, the suicide attempt was not altogether unsuccessful: the man Martin knew, or thought he knew, is gone. Or at least his secrets are, and their revelations overwrite Martin’s memories and reverberate into the relationships he shapes with his own sons.
When his father wakes up from the coma induced by his suicide attempt, Martin writes, “I told my father I loved him, and he mouthed the words, ‘You won’t.’”
Martin then learns that his humble, kind-hearted father, the man woke up early on cold mornings to drive him on his paper route, had been sexually abused as a child by his own father. Also, he is a gay man. Over the course of a thirty-nine-year marriage to Martin’s mother, his father confesses to upwards of one thousand anonymous affairs, many of them no-name, late-night trysts in High Bridge Park across town.
It’s a lot for Martin to take in:
I didn’t know how to reconcile my father’s “lewd conduct” with the man I thought I knew. My father? 1,000 men? What was I supposed to call that? Desire gone haywire, its idle set too high? Compulsion? Obsession? Addiction? Whatever it was called, I had to find some way to separate my father’s authentic sexuality from what seemed like absurdity and squalor.
My father didn’t go to a public park late at night for anonymous sex nine days after he tried to kill himself because he was seeking existential healing. He went for a moment of relief. What I wished, then, was that I didn’t know this about him, because this knowledge pained and embarrassed me. I did not want to accommodate it, integrate it somehow into my notions of family and father. I did not want to be associated with such sordid desperation. I felt tainted, compromised, ashamed. I was this man’s son?”
What follows is an almost surgical excision of a lie.
“I was not used to thinking of myself as deceived,” writes Martin. Not only that, Martin self-identifies with figures like Tommy Lee Jones’s Texas Ranger character in Lonesome Dove. His wife calls him Mr. Incredible, after Pixar’s super-dad. At his local park, he is known as the Mayor. He knows the names of every baby and most of the dogs too. Confused about his father’s park-persona, however, Martin finds himself diverging from his forward-charging movie-character doppelgangers. The “exhumation” of his father requires of Martin a sweeping reevaluation: “I thought I knew him. If I didn’t know my own father, what else did I not know?”
In search of answers, Martin launches a semi-vengeful inquisition of his father and sets about revising his understanding of his own past, from the extra attention paid to him by the priest who was his father’s confessor to his mother’s close scrape with cancer. It all looks different, knowing what he now knows. Even current events take on new meaning; when, a few weeks after his father’s suicide attempt, the conservative Idaho senator Larry Craig dodged charges of lewd conduct by claiming he had a “wide stance,” Martin says, “I struggled with my sense of humor.”
Throughout, Martin feels compelled, at a gut level, to come clean to his own sons about his father, lest he too, in protecting them, perpetuate the lie. He wants not one bone left in that closet, at least pertaining to his father’s homosexuality; but just as he worries about fielding that first “where we come from” question, Martin isn’t sure when it will be the right time, when his sons will be old enough to understand, when telling them will be for their benefit and not for his own. Besides, it isn’t only the bald, unprocessed truth he wants for them: long before he’s prepared to do any reckoning or forgiving, Martin acknowledges that he wants for his sons “a mournful, unflinching but also funny, hopeful story, a story of reckoning and acceptance and forgiveness.”
Stories for Boys is that story. The ostensibly serious book is sprinkled with odd-ball miscellany, photographs of the parks he and his father frequent for their respective purposes, cartoon drawings by his kids, tree-house blueprints, even a letter written in the persona of Rocky the dog, as if it is a family scrapbook from which the troubling facts have not been redacted. Most crucially, it is a book about truth and reconciliation, of one man with his father and his sons, and of a culture that is changing in terms of what we teach boys about sex, but not quickly enough for our children to be unscathed.
And in this family’s story resides the larger cultural narrative that we cultivate, the nostalgic, myth-filtered lens we apply to our American past, our relentless focus on tree-houses and paper routes, overlooking, still repressing in memory, what went on in the dark.