The first thing the literary world noticed about Dale Peck was his youth. Now 28, he produced the harrowing Martin and John (attractively published in Britain as Fucking Martin) at 25. Why do we expect so little of the (not all that) young? Peck’s sophistication needs no excuse or applause on those grounds. There is something far more remarkable about him within the youth consensus itself, and that is his death wish – or that of his fiction. It’s an uneasy distinction in this case, as his two novels deliberately flaunt their processing of personal experience to give us multiple redneck fathers, dead mothers and their avatars in the trailer homes and desperate suburbs of Long Island and Kansas where Peck grew up. A narrow but inexhaustible set of elements is folded over and over into the narrative, rolled into flakes of raw life streaked with story-telling, and scattered incompletely, like the body of Osiris, across both books.
In Fucking Martin, for instance, the bewilderment of a father obscurely responsible for the mother’s death but incapable of examining his grief is rehearsed in various formats, such as his pitiful feminisation, which culminates in him wearing her clothes. The Law of Enclosures contains a similar story, nakedly thrust at us by the author as himself, in the form of an ‘original’ version that names the father, although the actual business of outing daddy is consigned to a separate episode of menacing sexual burlesque between Dale Peck Snr, his friend and young Dale.
While the first, more covert book described a fugue and variations on abuse, love and death, it settled on writing as both sincerity and strategy. It was only a sort of dream, we are told at the end, precisely when Peck confesses John’s face to be ‘just a mask for mine’; only a story many revolutions from its source, which is the repertoire of tales we tell ourselves as children to deny our despair. Though an ‘Aids novel’, Fucking Martin is neither a tear-jerker nor a harangue, thanks to an unflinching sense of personal and literary necessity; it shows infantile denial uncurling into a test of the power offered by denunciation and assertion. The narrative is finely poised between inner, outer and artistic reality, with all the jagged plunges between them that are part of the process. The Law of Enclosures refuses such grace, choosing to be cruder and further out in the cold. It takes the interleaved terrors and ecstasies of Fucking Martin and separates them (outside, the boorish pathos of straight life; inside, the gloves-off family memoir mediated by language and fantasy, rather than fiction) so harshly that its one spark of hope consists in its being a novel about straight life by a gay writer, which is rare in the stifling world of identity politics.
Guilty parents in Peck’s work tend to be called Henry and Beatrice, or in their cheaper incarnations, Hank and Bea. This version features both pairs, and dares, on one level, an empathetic speculation on the way ordinary people can turn into sad monsters. Yet the intention subverts itself, because before they shrivel into cartoons of conjugal strife in Middle America, the characters are pretty weird and their early love downright freakish. Doom defines a Gothic romance which begins pure, under the sign of death, only to be corrupted by life. Friendless, orphaned Beatrice falls madly for Henry, entirely because she thinks he’s gay and dying of Aids, and he falls for her. In fact, he has a prominent brain tumour and has been groomed for posthumousness from birth. There is horror all round when he unexpectedly survives his operation. His hair starts to grow back (hair, in this writing about enclosures and the unknowable within, is an obsession second only to skin). How can Beatrice now file away her early fantasy about the bald boy as a kind of glorious, lethal dick – ‘so that if, unlike her parents, she couldn’t live for love, she could at least die from it’? She can only reconcile herself to the fuzzy shoots when he tells her that hair keeps growing after you die, as though he, at least, had already obliged.
Away from death, their relationship degenerates through one card-pack of episodes which is shuffled with another that tends upward, suggesting regeneration in old age, when mortality once more looms close enough to fire body and feeling. ‘What a good place to die,’ murmurs Bea hopefully on seeing the landscape where she and Hank are to build the misaligned house that stands for their petty hatreds, on the brink of rediscovering a deep connection thanks to her near-fatal illness and just in time for his ludicrous death from a hunter’s bullet: Hank has been mistaken for a deer. It’s hard to avoid the thought that Peck will only allow his heterosexual ciphers to transcend themselves when they stand under the same sword that has overshadowed gay life for so many years (this at a time when, to speak of Aids alone, living life in the presence of death is no longer a gay preserve).
Language and characterisation are even more inconsistent than we might expect of such a genre-defying collage. Peck has said mat these people are supposed to be ‘very, very normal ... badly educated working stiffs’, but his own experience of dysfunctional lower-middle-class families, occupying the torrid central section, gives the lie to the framing stereotypes – which, in turn, don’t go all the way where the inner life is concerned. The characters, occupying that ambiguous field between the first and third persons, are assigned abnormally fine-tuned perceptions for your average stiff. Thus: ‘The posture of the trees impressed Hank. They grew straight up into the sky, not perpendicularly from the ground they were rooted in. Everything in nature grows toward the sun, Hank thought, even as he felt himself faltering, drooping, hurting ... ’ If they didn’t have sensitive thoughts, how would Peck deploy his beautiful language? In compensation, the dialogue is all plodding inarticulacy.
‘Look, Myra,’ she said, ‘you ... I mean, I’m sure Henry must’ve mentioned that neither Susan nor John wants to come see us. I mean, they refuse to, they um, they just won’t do it.’
‘Yeah, I guess I knew that. I guess I ... yeah’
Other signs of the deprived common lot include working in a supermarket (her), where all the girls are named after flowers and gossip spunkily about guys; working in a plumbing firm (him), where the guys are called after brands of beer and lech about girls; making out with a sequence of secretaries at said firm, who drawl ‘Stick it in, baby!’; and drunken marital spats amid screaming kids, which seem lifted straight out of some dated piece of kitchen-sink melorealism.
Such passages produce a hollow sensation that reminded me of Jerzy Skolimowski’s film Moonlighting, about Poles marooned in Britain, shot in a synthetic London which is simultaneously itself and its parody – despite the director’s years in the UK (equivalent in this case to the fact that most gay men have two heterosexual parents). Although much of this ‘straight’ book is subtextually and otherwise pitched at the gay community, there are no signs of Peck ironising on gay prejudice with his clunky conception of Hank and Bea’s middle years. It remains unclear whether he really intends this kind of void, for all his emphasis on another kind of emptiness behind the hermeticism of the bodily envelope, and his nauseated attempts to violate or gut it in the central memoir. This section is lyrical, clinical and graphic like much of the prose, but considerably more wild-eyed with true rage and love:
Now I enter my father. The skin which has served as his fortress all his life and protected him against me offers no resistance, and I crawl through all the holes left open to me ... Then, with a hooked finger, I reach into his navel and pull out his organs in one long connected string: coils of intestine, half-inflated balloons of stomach and liver and kidneys, lungs which resemble bunches of grapes that have been stepped on ... In pulling my father out of himself I have pulled him out of me, and I look at the mess I’ve made in the same way as I would look at my vomit.
In these – literally transgressive – incursions into the body that elsewhere he describes as an impregnable barrier (there is also a child/lover’s journey through the lost mother), in the memory-flashes and reconstructions, imagination and desire writhe formidably over the intensities of recollection, making Hank and Bea brittler still and their so-called archetypal trajectory more improbable than the extremes of banality and perversion in Peck’s exorcisms of childhood.
That past, however, remains (so far) the wellspring of his fiction. So it must be forever reactualised and re-ordered. The abolition of time, which seems partly to be a cut-up device brandished by the author against his own haunting eschatology, is one of the most flamboyant tricks of The Law of Enclosures. Henry and Beatrice apparently meet in the Nineties (if we overlook the lingering Fifties flavour proper to the founding clichés of modern heterosexuality), and forty years later they’re still there. This disorientating state of affairs is of course a practical as well as a formal decision: there is so much concrete detail that we don’t want to be worrying about how they make coffee in 2030. More insidiously, Peck’s method is to offer us sets of stills only, leaving us to fill in the transitions. Most episodes walk us around a single emotional conjecture; by the next, the situation has already slipped up, down or about. When emotional movement does occur, the characters ‘suddenly realise’ something, or sense a thing – they ‘don’t know why’. We are in another form of perpetual present, one that implies too many quick changes backstage, as though the self-inflicted, then eluded, task of showing exactly how a preposterous love can filter into preposterous sourness and back again were too much for the writer’s skills.
But then, who wants another finely-crafted psychological novel about coupledom? Despite the problems of intention, tone and consistency in the new book, the arresting thing about Dale Peck is that he’s ready to bring a literary regard for signifying structure into play with the blood, guts and shame of private experience. He points beyond the ‘gay writer’ slot in suggestive and liberating ways, questioning the American badge of individualistic self-invention as well as the complacency of group identities. This means rescuing the family – the fearsome key to personal origin – from sanitisation and demonisation, and staring at realities of horror and pity through the fluids of bodily interconnectedness. All in a language that updates the sombre metaphysics of an older strand of American literature with the laconic force of the Hemingway-Carver line; weightier than the snivelling of yesterday’s golden boys like Jay McInerney, more honest than the calculated revel in social anomie of an absent author like Brett Easton Ellis. With the layering and transformation of memory that recur in Fucking Martin and The Law of Enclosures, Peck succeeds not only in establishing a personal mythology but also in passing it on to his readers – which is a far more difficult feat.