What Can We Steal From Lee Martin’s River of Heaven?

Title of Work and its Form: River of Heaven, novel
Author: Lee Martin (on Twitter @LeeMartinAuthor)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book was published by Three Rivers Press and can be found at fine bookstores everywhere and in e-book format.  Here‘s a link to Mr. Martin’s “Buy the Book” page.

Bonuses: You really should join Mr. Martin’s Facebook group: The Lee Martin Appreciation Society.  Lee frequently uses the page to interact with fans and friends, offering a priceless glimpse into his writing and his process.  Here‘s a nonfiction piece that Mr. Martin published in Brevity.  Mr. Martin created a music playlist for River of Heaven for the Largehearted Boy blog.  Here is a nonfiction piece Mr. Martin published in the Superstition Review.

River of Heaven was also the subject of the very first GWS video.  Check it out:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: EVERYTHING!

Discussion:
Sam Brady is a lifelong bachelor who allowed his homosexuality to keep him lonely.  (After  reading his story, you understand his complicated relationship with himself.)  Sam’s neighbor, Arthur the widower, helps Sam build a ship-shaped doghouse for his dog, Stump.  This is the inciting incident that kicks off the events of River of Heaven.  Long ago, Sam was friends with Dewey Finn and the shadow of Dewey’s death has cast a pall over the whole of Sam’s life.  Throughout the book, the reader learns the truth about what happened on the railroad tracks just before Dewey met his fate.  That darn ship-shaped doghouse has a ripple effect in Sam’s life.  A young man from the newspaper comes around to do a profile, which attracts the attention of Sam’s estranged brother, Cal.  Yes, a family is slowly congealing around a man who went so long without one.  Unfortunately, acquiring a family also means that Sam attracts attention from a person or two with whom he would rather not interact.  Mr. Martin’s plot unfurls inexorably and with a sense of inevitability.  This is a novel about broken people who, at long last, endure the pain necessary to grow and to forgive themselves and to find the happiness they deserve.

Mr. Martin is a world-class writer and teacher, but those who are fortunate enough to have met him have learned something more: Mr. Martin is a very decent man.  Sure, I’m betting that he’s shouted some cross words at someone who has cut him off.  He’s a human being.  But the important thing is that he recognizes the humanity in everyone he meets; sometimes a Herculean task.  His characters often have desires that most people would find unpleasant or strange.  Instead of dismissing people who are on the margins, Mr. Martin seeks to understand them and represent them faithfully on the page.  In River of Heaven, Mr. Martin seeks to understand a man who has spent time in a right-wing militia group.  Can those kinds of folks be written as extremist caricatures?  Sure, but Mr. Martin makes these characters more complicated and more human than others might have.  Mr. Martin is not at all an elderly retired homosexual who never had a long-term romantic relationship, but his willingness to understand others allows him to imagine what Sam has endured.

Further, some writers have a tendency to focus on the same characters and situations and themes.  (This was certainly the case for me!  I spent many years only writing about unrequited love.  Now, I just live it.)  You never know what you’re going to get from Mr. Martin, but you know it will be good.  A writer will always have common themes.  John Irving will always have his bears, wrestling and younger man sleeping with an older woman.  Sure.  But someone like Mr. Irving explores different situations.  Mr. Martin has written great memoir and novels set decades apart about a wide range of characters.  I suppose it’s really a matter of personal taste, but isn’t being a writer a little bit like being a performer?  What fun would it be to have Whitney Houston’s voice if “I Will Always Love You” is the ONLY SONG YOU EVER SING?

In River of Heaven and his other books, Mr. Martin confronts human problems in a complicated and realistic manner.  Let’s say you meet an elderly man who confesses he’s never been in a real romantic relationship.  If you ask why, should you be satisfied with a one-word answer?  Of course not.  There are a lot of complicated issues involved in the situation.  For good and bad, those complicated situations require a lot of time and attention.  Consider melodrama.  Think Trapped in the Closet or a Tyler Perry film or a terrible romantic comedy.  Those works often require you to gasp at relatively normal things.  Sam reveals that he’s “a closet auntie, a fag, a queer—you know all the words.”  Mr. Martin reveals this on page 3.  Why?  Because simply being homosexual is not a big deal and it’s not really a shock.  (In Trapped in the Closet, Mr. Kelly expects the audience to gasp because of the simple fact that a character is gay or is a little person or that a little person who pooped in his pants.)  Mr. Martin wrings tremendous drama and feeling from how Sam’s sexual orientation shaped his life.

River of Heaven is very much a “literary” novel, for whatever that means.  “Literary” work is like vanilla ice cream: it’s delicious and will please a crowd, but it can be a little pedestrian.  Mr. Martin’s book is not at all pedestrian because he has several different threads to keep your attention and they’re each a little bit different.

  • What will happen to Maddie, the beautiful young woman whose parents didn’t do a very good job?
  • What will happen to Cal?  Boyoboy, he shouldn’t have gotten so wrapped up in some kind of bombing plot in some manner I won’t reveal.
  • Will Sam make the temporary family he’s accruing permanent?

And most of all…

  • What the heck happened to Dewey Finn all those years ago?

There’s a little bit of a crime novel here, a little bit of romance novel, even!  And why not?  Mr. Martin makes it impossible for you to put down the book because you want to know how these different stories are resolved.

I think that the most valuable lesson in the book comes from the way Mr. Martin releases the megaton of exposition for which he is responsible.  I suppose, by and large, Mr. Martin got his shy and defensive narrator to talk by bringing in a cast of other characters who forced him to talk.  The unfortunately named Duncan Hines is a young reporter who (in my view) gets more and more dangerous.  As a reporter, it’s literally his job to ask questions and pull exposition out of Sam.  Brother Cal returns, allowing Sam to remember and describe important events from their youth.  Vera, an old family friend is a reminder of those days gone by.  Sam was introspective for so long because he had no one else around.  Now that he’s surrounded by a family, he can’t help but get his story out.  Mr. Martin’s narrator is the kind of guy who likes to keep secrets, which can be a real problem in a first person novel.  Thankfully, Sam’s new friends won’t let him button his lips anymore.

No GWS write-up could do justice to what a writer can learn from Mr. Martin.  I am forever grateful that I was lucky enough to have worked with him on a fairly close basis.  Mr. Martin maintains an extensive teaching schedule, both at Ohio State and elsewhere.  If the opportunity to meet him at a signing or to attend one of his workshops presents itself, take advantage!

What Should We Steal?

  • Understand as many kinds of people as you can and cast them as the stars of your work.  Writing about the same characters and situations all the time is a little bit like eating the same meal every day.  Salisbury steak is good, but don’t you want something different once in a while?
  • Subvert tendencies toward melodrama by digging deeper into your characters.  Character traits are not drama in and of themselves.  Drama and comedy arise FROM your characters and what the traits mean about their lives.
  • Layer in qualities from other genres to add depth and attract more attention.  The Godfather is a gangster movie…but it’s also a romance.  The Incredibles is a kid’s movie, but it’s also a sad meditation on our society’s rejection of healthy competition.
  • Employ a character’s support network to coax exposition from your protagonist.  When in doubt, drop in a confidante!  A cast of different characters allows you to fill in what happened, as different characters will care about different things.

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