by Lee Martin; Crown, 2011; 275 pages; $24
“… but there we were, coming and going in this town where hearts full of longing came together all the time because, when you got down to it, we were all looking for someone — anyone who would make us feel less alone.”
That loneliness — that abject loneliness — is the essence of Lee Martin’s new novel. The traditional, small-town comforts that were said to reassure us, protect us from the vagaries of this world, simply aren’t there. All that’s there is loneliness.
Break the Skin embraces this unsettling idea with an admirable understanding of the lengths human beings will go to in order to “feel less alone.” Martin refuses to pass judgment on his characters. That’s too easy to do. What Martin, author of the recent Pulitzer finalist The Bright Forever, wants is acknowledgement of the crucial human need for connection and, even more, for love.
The small Illinois town of 19-year-old Laney Volk only stultifies. Laney, one of the voices of the novel, ekes out a living at the local Wal-Mart. She’s too afraid to pursue a promising career in voice. She’s more comfortable staying in the ironically named New Hope, where she lives for a time in a trailer along with Rose and Delilah, women twice her age, who work with her.
The relationship among the three repeatedly shifts as men are introduced into their compass, and petty suspicions devolve into major jealousies. Soon not even Lester Shipp, Laney’s crush and a man with a horrifying past, can control things.
At the same time and hundreds of miles away in north Texas, Miss Baby, as Betty Ruiz is known, enters her tattoo parlor. More worldly than Laney, Miss Baby (the novel’s other voice and the individual whom the author dedicates his book to, a character, he says, who “spoke to me from the heart”) is a poet-of-sorts who understands that her art breaks the skin and leaves scars on and in her customers. She is trying to protect her profligate brother from being killed by a partner he has stolen from even as she continues desperately to search for someone she herself can love. One night, Miss Baby bumps into someone with a connection to Laney. She takes the stranger into her home, even though she, too, will have reconfirmed what she already knows: She can’t control much.
On the surface, Break the Skin seems a thriller, replete with trailer parks, tattoo parlors, hexes and murder. That’s its skin, to be sure, but beneath that skin is Lee Martin’s compassionate understanding of the desperate loneliness that too often comes with living a scarred existence, as Miss Baby describes it at the novel’s conclusion, where “you found yourself shaking with the thought that you might never find that someone, that you’d always be alone in the world where everyone but you — you’d swear this to be true — was happy.”
The simple poetry of his language and the generous empathy Lee Martin has toward characters he refuses to judge make Break the Skin a deeply moving and cautionary tale for us all, wherever we come from and whoever we are.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.