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A Man For Our Time: Eugene Marten’s Firework

By Mike Murphy.

Review of Firework by Eugene Marten

Eugene Marten, Firework (Tyrant Books, 2018)

 2017 was a year to forget. A sordid fatberg of a year filled with lecherous pussy-grabbing perverts, bloviating dotards and madmen with loose nukes. We saw psychotics roaming the streets with bump-stock semi-automatics, Russian bots dumping fake news like sturgeon roe into the social media swamp and fresh-scrubbed, khaki-clad neo-Nazi mobs marching by candlelight. Throw in a few natural disasters of biblical proportions and you will understand the impeccable timing for the Second Edition release of Eugene Marten’s epic Firework from independent publisher Tyrant Books. Originally released in 2010, it’s a story perfectly matched to our recently completed annus horribilis. The book’s bleakness will make you want to slit your wrists—but Marten’s sublime literary prose, its tiny slivers of beauty and a strong belief in redemption just might be enough to save your life.

Set in the 1990s with the L.A. riots interspersed as background noise, Firework is the story of an ambitionless, stoic man named Jelonnek, a Travis Bickle-like character who works alone in a government forms warehouse located in some unnamed rustbelt city (probably Cleveland). He drinks too much and watches football. He idolises Number 19 (probably Bernie Kosar… one of Marten’s strengths is letting the reader fill in the blanks). Jelonnek’s social awkwardness is painful. He lives with a nameless woman in a small apartment. He is a man ill-prepared for the world around him.

The story begins with Jelonnek getting picked up in a prostitution sweep and spending a few days in jail. He’s constantly buffeted by events and seems to revel in the experience, the excitement it brings to his mundane existence. His stint in jail. Community service. Broken down cars in the middle of nowhere. The rejection by unattainable women. His crude Polish immigrant father. A mother who hung herself from the living room chandelier. Jelonnek lets it all wash over him like battering waves he’s grown accustomed to.

You were moving onto something new and next, even if it meant being swallowed. 

As Marten reveals Jelonnek, we see that he is both an everyman and a troubled man, emotionally stunted and damaged. We also get brief glimpses of Jelonnek’s humanity, his striving to be more than he is capable of being. We see he is not a monster, but that there is one caged inside of him, trying to find the key to get out.

Jelonnek is an American Meursault and, reminiscent of Camus’s indifferent hero, he is not capable of playing society’s games and suffers the consequences. An innocent trip with a Misfit-like character to buy cigarettes at his brother’s wedding turns into a harrowing series of events and is the fulcrum on which Marten deftly pivots the story. Your life can change in a moment, he’s telling us. It is also where he meets the prostitute Littlebit.

The other one was dressed for the occasion and called him by the color of his eyes. She called herself a name that sounded fake, like a porn star, and except for the bulge that birth imparts to the belly, she almost looked like one. Close enough, anyway, to let you forget certain things, like that bulge, and the people waiting for you somewhere, the music over, the long tables cleared, streamers hanging slack and windless. Close enough to let you put your hand on the door latch and pull, and silence your better judgement, and wasn’t that what you wanted in the first place?

He liked the way she looked at him. She looked at him with her mouth.

Soon, Jelonnek is on the run, heading to the West Coast with Littlebit and her young daughter Miss D, a ten-year old who still sucks her thumb, staying in cheap motels and scrounging for food and cigarettes, Jelonnek their dysfunctional provider. The story becomes an On The Road with Jelonnek playing the role of Sal Paradise (he even works as a night watchman on the docks, overseeing migrant sailors, just as Sal once did). Marten renders descriptions of the changing landscapes of the West in stark contrast to the inert lives of Jelonnek, Littlebit and Miss D.

The grass thinned out and the livestock dwindled but still they blurred past miles of fencing, as though distance and silence were subject to ownership like everything else. Low mountains to the north, the long velvety hills closer in with the shadows of clouds curving up and over and whose private property were they?

They trudge through the desolate landscapes of the American highway, never roaming far from the tawdry interchanges, headed somewhere else.

Marten interjects small moments of tenderness as this thrown-together “family” struggles to avoid the hard fate that America shoves down the throats of her underclass, like when the trio first see the Pacific Ocean.

Your feet sank in mud and the surf rushed back out as hard as it came in, wanting to pull your legs out from under you. Jelonnek threw out his arms. Miss D screamed. The ocean withdrew in layers, hissing white foam subsiding to cloudy brown, and then sheet upon lucid sheet shed one after the other like leaves of a liquid text unveiling its conclusion: the sand, smoothed to a shiny unbroken slickness in which for a moment everything was reflected.

“Jelonny we standin on the sky!” Miss D yelled.

Marten does not spare us  the gory details of their lives. He makes us look at them, painting their ugliness with his spare prose. It would have been easy for Marten to make Littlebit and Miss D simple, superficial characters, only sidekicks to Jelonnek’s protagonist story. But they are rendered in full, their dialogue and unique personalities a highlight of the book, two people with lives so desperate they put what little faith and hope they have in a man like Jelonnek.

The entire second half of the novel feels like some great disaster of prophetic violence is always about to occur, either perpetrated against, or committed by, them.

We witness Jelonnek’s attempt to reestablish this make-believe family in another unnamed city, working a series of temporary menial jobs. They rent an idealised suburban house with caring neighbours and a chance for community waiting only to be grasped by three people who are completely incapable of it—the American dream never comes to those who can’t buy it or steal it or beat it into submission, after all. We watch Jelonnek’s slow descent into some kind of madness and wonder if this madness was always in him or whether it is a reaction to his own life. Nature or nurture.

Marten is a master at turning overlooked, everyday things into opportunities for wounding trauma, things as simple as a mailbox.

At first Miss D liked playing with the mailbox. She’d put something in it and say she was mailing it to herself. The she’d raise the flag and take it out. Once she opened it and it was crawling with termites. They were an inch long, with pale segmented bodies and pincer-like mandibles. She ran to her room and shut the door and never went near the mailbox again.

The book’s ending is like a punch in the face—one that was not unexpected but no less brutal as a result. Jelonnek finally lets the monster come out. Reminiscent of the way Cormac McCarthy uses acute isolation and violence to represent natural human experience, Marten has Jelonnek turn to a cataclysmic act a la Lester Ballard in Child of God, making us question the larger themes of fate and society and the way they can determine our lives despite our best intentions. Fittingly, the legendary literary man Gordon Lish has compared Marten’s writing to McCarthy’s and the comparison is fully warranted. Marten needs to be considered one our finest contemporary American writers.

So, if you’re looking for an inspiring, feel-good story to divert you from the reality of our time, well, you’ll need to look somewhere else. But if you want to read powerful writing that will make you feel like your eyes have been sewed shut your whole life and just got pried open and when they open they open onto a scene of a car crash along some desolate American highway with the parts strewn all over the road and the burning car upside-down in a field of wildflowers and a big moon coming up over the mountains while a shirtless man staggers up out of the ditch and you start to cry because it looks like the most beautiful thing you have ever seen, then read Firework. You won’t forget it.


Mike Murphy lives and writes in Baltimore, Maryland. His writing has appeared previously in 3:AM, The Millions, Backbone Mountain Review, Passager and other places. He is co-founder of the infamous-yet-little-known-and-now defunct Two Mule Literary Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 11th, 2018.