Lee Martin’s novel portrays good country people—and a hothead.
. . . the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed . . . —William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize banquet speech
Late One Night by Lee Martin. Dzanc Books, 313 pp.
Ronnie Black is a real hothead—everyone knows it—and he’s unfaithful. When his estranged wife and three of her seven children die one night in a fire that engulfs their trailer home, suspicions point to Ronnie. The fire and a subsequent custody battle roil the small rural town, especially when the cause of the fire is ruled to be arson. Lee Martin’s new novel shines a light on human failings, such as gossip and lack of compassion, as well as on quiet daily heroism and the way mistakes and coincidences can combine to produce tragedy.
Reading Late One Night, I was struck by Martin’s compassion for his characters. Especially for those who, despite themselves, end up doing wrong. Having read his nonfiction, including his fine memoirs From Our House (reviewed) and Such a Life (reviewed) and his helpful ongoing craft blog, “The Least You Need to Know,” it’s clear he’s one of them. One of those farm and working folk from the hinterlands, from America’s faded provincial towns and threadbare rural backwaters.
One of them, that is, who left. Who took a different path, got out. Who got himself tons of education and made himself a writer, who turned himself into an artist. Whose subject, here, is so much them, those he left behind—yet hasn’t. The effect of Martin’s steady compassion grows throughout Late One Night until, as mysteries are revealed—as the true story of the fatal fire is finally told—the novel becomes deeply, surprisingly moving.
Maybe it’s that his characters, in turn, finally express compassion for each other. That rings true or at least possible. These are broken people, many of them, or guiltily carrying burdens, and their effort to forgive others in the face of their own failures feels heroic. A murder mystery on the surface, Late One Night is really about forgiveness and the flickering hope of redemption.
Martin’s feeling for ordinary people and the ones among them who go disastrously astray comes from deep inside the writer, I believe. But one can see in his technical choices how he expressed it, how he tried to make his readers feel it. Late One Night is written in close third-person that gives us omniscient access into someone’s inner thoughts and feelings—but he alternates this with a communal voice and point of view. For instance:
No one said a word. Everyone was sitting at the cafeteria tables, where only moments before they’d been talking about crop prices, and Lord couldn’t we use some rain, and hell yes it was hot. Too hot for September. That was damn sure. . . . He’d left her stranded in Goldengate one night when they got in a snort and a holler because she wanted to buy a doll baby for their littlest girl and he said there wasn’t money enough for something like that.
This has such an interesting effect, making the omniscient narrator, for one thing, possibly an outsider channeling a local, a local himself, or a chorus of locals. Of course this supports the private conversations and inner heartaches Martin makes us privy to. A character sums it up, speaking in utter simplicity to her lover late in the book:
What I’ve decided is maybe we’re all that close to doing things we’d regret. The right chain of circumstances, and there we are.
Her mate answers her in a reply to the entire town:
We need to help one another. We need to forgive. That’s what I aim to do. In my heart of hearts, I hope you’ll do the same.
Old truths, it’s true. But as the novel ends, with a snowfall reminiscent of James Joyce’s that famously closes his short story “The Dead,” Martin makes them live. Set within tragic circumstances, among ordinary lives that have become real to us, Late One Night makes the old verities new and touching.
Lee Martin answered some questions by email.
Q. You’ve said the incident that led to Late One night was a disastrous rural trailer fire you read about. I understand you sometimes conduct research for your novels, and wonder how much research you did for this one beyond that initial newspaper account?
I went to the site of the fire and looked at the ruins. I cataloged the small details, the ones like a child’s purple glove with a silver star on it. Those concrete details suggested lives to me and led me inside the characters I invented. Those details invited me to imagine those characters’ stories.
Q. Why did that incident resonate for you? Put another way, how did it resonate as a possible novel? Is such an impulse or hunch different from the feeling that tells you something’s an essay?
I took the fact from the news and started playing the “what if?” game. What if the husband were living outside the home at the time of the fire? What if the fire turned out to be the result of arson? What if small-town gossip began to cast suspicion on that husband? What if it wasn’t exactly clear if he was guilty? And where did guilt begin and end? And what about responsibility? Responsibility to family, to love, to everyone around us?
In that way, the impulse to write a novel is similar for me to the one that leads me to an essay. Both begin with questions. Both begin with what I don’t know. Each becomes a way of working my way toward knowing, or else to a deepening of the questions, or perhaps a different set of questions. The difference is that with a novel I immediately see a dramatic frame upon which to hang a story. With an essay, I want to see what I think about something. There is no frame, and perhaps no story, as I begin to write, although one may emerge during the process.
Q. Late One Night is a murder mystery, yet not a typical one, based as it is on a relatively small incident in a rural backwater and set among blue-collar people. I’m struck by your steady focus on this fatal arson and how it affected those whose lives are seldom chronicled. Was any writerly redress at work? What reaction have you gotten from such places, including from folks in your home region of southern Illinois?
I want my work to come from the people and the places I know best, and that happens to be the blue-collar world of the rural Midwest. The people there are often overlooked in our contemporary culture. I want to tell their stories, and I want to honor their complexity and their dignity. Their lives are splendid and rich because they’re human, and if I can give a voice to them that people will listen to, then I’m glad. I bristle when readers dismiss characters because of their economic status, or because they think they make poor decisions. This is snobbery of the worst order. We all make poor decisions. We stumble along the way, and we do our best to regain our footing.
Ronnie Black, in Late One Night makes a decision he’ll regret the rest of his life, but does that mean he’s incapable of love? Does it mean he doesn’t know what it is to protect his family? Does it mean we should stand in judgment of him? I do my best to understand the sources of my characters’ behaviors, and those behaviors are often tied to what it is to live a particular life in a particular place. My place, as I’ve said, is the rural Midwest. I hear from a number of folks there who enjoy my books. At the same time, I’m aware that I’ve stepped outside the custom of that culture to not speak of one’s troubles and secrets.
Q. I’m familiar with your use and skill at the communal point of view from some of your essays where you do the same thing. I’m interested which came first—is this something fictional practice has brought to your nonfiction, or vice versa? What is your aim in using it?
That’s a great question, Richard. I’m not really sure, but I think I may have tried expressing a communal voice first in nonfiction. I’m thinking of my essay published by Brevity, “Dumber Than.” Then, of course, I used it in my novel, The Bright Forever.
When I use it, my aim is to give a voice to the community within which my main characters have their own voices. We’re always acting in accordance with a community or in resistance to it. I like to find the communal voice that represents the cultural norms of the place to give a texture to the voices of my characters.
Q. Some of your novel’s chapters are very short, about three pages, while others are longer. This variation was striking in some cases. I wonder how you worked out chapter length?
I often think a chapter should focus on a single dramatic event or a major shift in the character relationships. Sometimes it takes a number of pages to fully dramatize something, but sometimes I like to do a quick cut, the sound of which I hope will resonate in contrast to a longer chapter. Resonance can come from a variety of sources in a novel, but one of them is the sound the book makes from the length and arrangement of its chapters.
Q. I’ve written a lot here about writing’s exciting and rewarding aspects. But writing has a heartbreaking side, as when you work for months or even years on something and conclude—or are persuaded—that it doesn’t work. How do you deal with or think about such setbacks or discouragement?
I try to choose my material wisely. I want to be so excited about the work ahead of me that I can’t help but succeed. I rarely give up on a project, but the few times that I have, I’ve been able to let it go because the next exciting thing is calling to me. I’m still convinced that, should the time come, I’d be able to go back to those abandoned projects and make them work.
Q. You must have known talented writers over the years who have quit, maybe while you were a student or among your own students. Why do you think some are able to continue writing, even in the face of steady rejection? Maybe this is a personal question, as I believe you’ve said it took you a long time before things clicked for you.
When I was a student, there were others who were much more talented than I, but for whatever reasons they stopped. I’ve had my own students who should have gone on to stellar careers, but they stopped writing. It wouldn’t be fair of me to speculate on what it is that keeps some of us going while others surrender, though I suspect it has something to do with being extremely driven and with using disappointment for motivation and for a certain thickening of the skin that this writing business demands of us.
Q. You publish both fiction and creative nonfiction, and teach both. Are there key differences in the genres writers must learn or distinctive leaps they must make? For instance, fiction’s “what if” quality seems to take a different mindset than is associated with nonfiction. By the same token, the emphasis on and creation of a reflective writer’s persona in nonfiction seems different than fiction’s omniscience or its creation of a first-person narrator.
I do think there’s one major difference for those who write fiction and for those who write nonfiction. Usually the fiction writer who’s uncomfortable with nonfiction is the writer who can’t bear to put him or herself on the page. That writer can do amazing things with story and character, but that thinking, meaning-making voice doesn’t come naturally to him or her. The persona of the reflective writer is only comfortable in the guise of a first-person narrator in a piece of fiction—a person who doesn’t announce how similar or dissimilar he or she is from the writer.
[See also my post “Lee Martin: the artist must risk failure.” ]