Reading Eugene Marten’s acutely atmospheric third novel Firework (after In the Blind and Waste) was like a bleak baptism of sorts—a dirty immersion into the stinking moral bankruptcy, intolerance, and apathy that is the pale, white underbelly of humanity. Set in the Midwest in the early ‘90’s, there is an angst-ridden undertone of desperation—of imminent doom—enmeshed throughout the narrative: the Los Angeles riots, the Gulf War, Bosnia, etc. There is also a palpable cultural polarization, a growing tension between races, religions, sexes—a feeling that civilization may very well be entering the end days.
Shiftless protagonist Jelonnek is a government employee who has worked a mundane job in a forms warehouse near Cleveland for the last ten years and shows little or no emotion about anything except the Browns and the godlike Number Nineteen (an amalgam of Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar?). He obsessively watches one football game—which he calls “The Game”—versus the Kansas City Chiefs over and over again. And he has begun writing a post-apocalyptic novel entitled Armageddon Zero.
But on their white-knuckle drive—while maneuvering across country described as “the palm of God’s hand"—instead of finding salvation or redemption at journey’s end, Jelonnek comes face to face with some of his worst fears and is forced to confront them head on...
Here are just a few random examples:
“He stumbled into the kitchen instead of the men’s room, had to ask where it was. Somebody was at the urinal but nobody was in the stall. Normally Jelonnek would have waited till the other guy left, but today he didn’t care and didn’t have much choice. When the first wave had passed he felt his hair sticking to his scalp and his shirt was damp. She looked like the news, not someone who read it. There was a window over the sink. His stomach convulsed again. When it stopped all he could do was look at the toilet paper roll. The bathroom was empty.”
“A guy made Molotov cocktails on public access. A stand-up comic saying, ‘Does the Pope sh!t in the woods?’ A knife that never needed sharpening, it could slice tomatoes paper-thin or saw through steel pipe. A beer ad, but Jelonnek hadn’t had a beer since the Super Bowl. He drank black coffee with sugar. Peed with the light off, gun in one hand, glancing out the bathroom window into the backyard…”
Giancarlo DiTrapano, editor for NY Tyrant Books, fittingly describes the novel’s narrative: “There is no single sentence in here that does not contain a totality. There is not one line that isn’t pregnant with many meanings. Marten has the power to see magic in the mundane, but the true magic is his ability to communicate it.”
And by creating an air of ambiguity and vagueness in the narrative—none of the characters have full names (and some don’t even have names), the locations are rarely specified, the year is only hinted at through historical references, etc.—Marten creates a storyline that readers will find themselves inadvertently immersed in and emotionally connected to, one that is disturbingly intimate and shockingly profound.
Readers who enjoy challenging and thought provoking reads should seek out Marten’s latest; the story and all of its images will stay with you—like a fishhook embedded in your palm.
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.
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