Friday, June 17, 2016

The Poet of Hollywood Boulevard

Martin Ott, Interrogations: Stories

A young man, who cannot reconcile himself to married life, must return to Mosquito Island to repair his relationship with the first woman he loved: his mother. An aging mother, whose daughter has been praying to a mysterious Virgin Mary sculpture, realizes she must make her own miracles. A husband and wife, drifting apart, discover their very literal bond when their daughter physically glues them together.Twenty short, powerful snippets, given brief but luminous life.

As a poet, Martin Ott has a distinctive voice. Blending his military experience, society’s suffusion with media, and the intricacies of making a life in entertainment, his verse has a concise punch often missing in poetry written by tenure-track professors. Ott’s fiction somewhat lacks that confidence, appropriating elements from other authors he respects and emulates. Not that his fiction isn’t good; he’s a skilled mimic. Rather, as a fictioneer, he’s clearly early in his career.

And what influences he mimics. Reading his stories, veteran audiences will recognize Ott emulating Annie Proulx, TC Boyle, and Deborah Eisenberg, among others. His eclectic borrowing gives this book an encyclopedic feeling, like a Best Contemporary American Short Fiction anthology filtered through an ambitious student’s viewpoint. Sometimes one suspects he’s imitating established authors because he lacks confidence in his own tale to tell. Other times, it’s like uncovering a lost work by some favorite writer.

Ranging from under two to nearly thirty pages, Ott’s stories span a gamut of styles, voices, and influences. Some stories have overtones of magic realism, especially as characters create their own realities, then drag others with them, willfully or otherwise. Sometimes Ott limits himself to strict realism, hitting readers directly with a jarring overload of detail. Stories occasionally hint at mysteries and thrillers, though he avoids recourse to detectives and other professionals. Ott’s voices swell.

Martin Ott
At his best, Ott’s language resembles the poet he usually is. Momentary glimpses of powerful, incisive language strip away characters’ pretensions, especially in his shortest stories, where a single moment becomes an entire life. A little girl promises her faux boyfriend: “We’ll do dangerous things, then we’ll fight about it.” A former military interrogator (not the author himself, surely) “yearned to break men like bread sticks.” This doesn’t just best breaking twigs; it invests family, hearth, and religion into violence.

Ott’s geography is somewhat uneven. His best stories emphasize two regions: his adopted home of coastal California (some highlight San Francisco, but experienced coast-dwellers will recognize it’s transparently a cipher for Los Angeles), and small-town Michigan, a region he revisits often enough, one suspects it’s his home domain. California, for Ott, represents dreams made manifest, the admixture of sun-kissed opportunity and bitter disappointment, the two experiences most Californians recognize from working overtime in the sun.

Michigan, however, is something Ott’s characters mainly reconcile themselves with. His Michigan stories mostly involve somebody, not always the viewpoint character, returning after fleeing, confronting some long-buried truth. “Home,” to these characters, represents something they escape, even while living there (underage drinking and drug abuse, which numb users to the present, are ubiquitous). But a bad home is still home, and Ott’s characters return because they need stability. Even if they must build it themselves.

Besides these two locations, Ott liberally uses images from Wyoming, Alaska, Seattle, and elsewhere. These sites, unfortunately, are more general and vague than California or Michigan, giving the suspicion Ott has simply elected to imitate other authors (Proulx in Wyoming, or Boyle in Alaska) he finds influential. The locations become more like generalized non-places than actual locations. If we can accept the dreamlike conditions, the places are okay. But they lack Michigan’s detailed, meaty realism.

Thus accepting Ott’s stories requires accepting Ott. Though a master poet, he remains a journeyman fiction writer, and demands an audience that can accept his learning curve. I mostly can; only very late in this volume do Ott’s inconsistencies become prominent enough to bother me. Even when he presents Wyoming, a state I know pretty well, as more archetype than location, I feel only minor twinges. Ott’s still learning fiction, and that’s okay.

At his best, Martin Ott’s fiction peels away the layers of pretense to uncover the underlying facts, like the interrogator he once was. Narrative, for Ott, exposes characters’ inner journey, as most literary fiction does, but it also exposes the factual core beneath subjective experience. And often, Ott exposes the jarring friction between reality and experience. Like an interrogator, Ott pierces pretense, laying reality bare to criticism and to brisk, informed response.

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