Ashley Gray Billman
Break the Skin by Lee Martin (Crown, 2011)
Deception and lies, love triangles and witchcraft, unfulfilled dreams and trailer parks, desperation and accidental murder. These elements, so often associated with salacious romance novels, fill the pages of Pulitzer Prize winning author Lee Martin’s latest novel, Break the Skin. And yet, Martin’s refreshingly straight-forward prose and carefully developed characters bear little resemblance to that genre, elevating the novel instead to the realm of serious literature. In order to tell his tale, Martin skillfully employs two female protagonists to communicate a uniquely feminine perspective. Martin’s ability to capture the loneliness and intense desire for love and companionship that effortlessly drives the novel’s often desperate and fatal actions is so successful that his characters haunt the reader long after the final sentences. Whether we can truly identify with any of the novel’s thorny twists and turns is irrelevant; rather, Martin’s tale reminds us to take comfort in the control we can exercise over our own destinies.
The action in Break the Skin alternates between two Midwestern towns separated by hundreds of miles. The first, Mt. Gilead, Illinois, takes center stage as the home of Elaine “Laney” Volk, one of the novel’s two protagonists. Laney grows up in an even smaller town just outside Mt. Gilead – New Hope, population 212 – and throughout the novel she traverses between locales. Laney’s feelings about New Hope need little explanation and provide clarity about the environment in which she was raised, her own character, and those she calls her friends:
A bedroom community to Mt. Gilead, if you wanted to give this a positive spin. A ho-hum, no chance-in-hell town if you wanted to tell the truth. A nowhere place in southeastern Illinois, laid out in the middle of farmland, a town of retired folks and too many meth addicts and people just waiting for the next thing.
Not surprisingly, the desolation and absolute inertia Laney associates with her hometown mirror her feelings about herself. She describes herself as “a nothing kind of girl,” who works as a cashier at the local Wal-Mart, living an “unremarkable life,” “scared and shy,” “starved for love.”
Laney and two friends, Delilah Dade and Rose MacAdow, comprise a trio self-described as a “sisterhood of lonely hearts” with an intense “ache for love.” The extent to which that ache eats at each of these women’s hearts is palpable as each experiences love found and love lost. It is this same ache and trauma that is largely responsible for the final, violent clash between Delilah and Rose over a man they both love, Russell Swain, aka “Tweet.”
When Martin introduces his co-protagonist, Betty “Miss Baby” Ruiz, the narrative jumps hundreds of miles south to Denton, TX. With Miss Baby’s character, Martin quickly but effectively reveals his hand – Miss Baby and Laney are kindred spirits. Wholly apart from her unfulfilled soul, Miss Baby, a forty-year-old, single tattoo artist, endures a myriad of other problems, including a brother, Pablo, whose occupation as a cattle rustler has landed him in a world of trouble with the most dangerous man in North Texas, Virgil “Slam” Dent, and Pablo’s ex-wife, Carolyn, who finds every way possible to blame Miss Baby for her problems. Miss Baby, “a Mexican girl who knew she wasn’t pretty like the gringas,” comes from a long line of “hurt hearts”: “I suppose I was like my mami, looking for the next good thing, ready to seize the day my life turned around and … I could be who I knew I was: Betty Ruiz, Miss Baby, tender in the heart and eager for love.”
When a strange man shows up in Denton, lost and confused, Miss Baby jumps at the chance to make him her own. Little does she know, though, that this man, whom she renames Donnie True, is actually Lester Stipp, who Martin first introduces in Mt. Gilead as Laney’s love interest. Lester, an Iraqi war veteran, suffers from dissociative fugues, that is, mental blackouts that make him forget his identity and jump on the next bus out of town. Miss Baby knows “it was a fool thing to do” to make up their marriage and happy life together but, again, like Laney and Delilah, and Rose for that matter, she is driven by a force larger than herself, the ache for love that can quickly push a person over the edge of rational thinking. Even Miss Baby willingly admits: “I wasn’t living in the sane, rational world,” and “I understood what had sent mami out night after night looking for someone to make her feel less alone. I wanted more than she had. I wanted a man to stay with me forever.” Martin repeatedly develops situations where we know more than his characters and have premonitions about how things will play out before they do, thereby creating a moral imperative to pass judgment. Yet, despite our personal inclinations toward truth and honesty, our reaction to Miss Baby’s lies and deception is one of sympathy not disgust.
Eventually the tangled knot of lies and stories comes unraveled and the truth reveals itself. As Laney poignantly notes: “…everybody had to answer for the things they’d done.” For Miss Baby, like the others, the truth hurts: “The most painful thing of all was what I saw about myself … It’s a sin to want too much.” While Lester is busy creating a life with Miss Baby, Laney has been implicated and charged in a terrible crime involving Delilah, Rose, and Tweet. Miss Baby can no longer maintain the charade regarding their faux-marriage after Lester’s face appears on the evening news, wanted for questioning for that same crime back in Mt. Gilead.
Following Lester back to Illinois, Miss Baby comes face to face with her counterpart, Laney. Finally, in a tense courthouse scene, Miss Baby observes Laney fighting for her freedom: “When she looked at me in that courtroom, her state went all the way to my heart, and I felt what we shared: a desire to be loved.” As Laney pleads for her innocence she sums up the fatal mess left in the wake of the preceding two-hundred-plus pages:
It was the idiocy of people so starved for love they didn’t have a thought in their heads of how easily their lives could spin out of control. That was the story of Lester and me, and Rose and Tweet, and Delilah. A story of want. A story of greed, but under it all a story of fear, which was the same as love when push came to shove, and you found yourself shaking with the thought that you might never find someone, that you’d always be alone in a world where everyone but you – you’d swear this to be true—was happy.
In this final moment, Laney is so completely vulnerable and helpless that, once again, we cannot help but feel sorry for her and understand, without being able to imagine, how she got herself into this position.
Although Break the Skin is an emotionally exhausting read at times, Lee Martin ultimately leaves us completely satisfied. From the shadow of the Midwestern trailer park lifestyle inhabited by Martin’s characters comes Laney’s warning that “you could be that person you saw sometimes on the news, that person who’d done something unforgivable and could barely face it. Trust me … It can happen.” Whether or not we are content with where our lives lead us, we, like Laney, control the decisions we make and in large part, our destinies. While Miss Baby may be luckier than Laney, at the end of the novel, she, too, faces the reality that her bad choices have led her to the mess in which she finds herself. Despite her predicament, however, she now has “a story of love, no matter how roughed up and ugly and stained … Tomorrow and for always. The truest story I know.” By concluding with an image of stories and storytelling, Martin softens an otherwise dismal tone, ending on a hopeful, albeit melancholy, note. As Break the Skin draws to a close, we realize that we all have our own stories that, like Miss Baby’s tattoos, mark us to our very core, far deeper than the surface of our skin, stories that we must remember and share so we never stray too far from our true selves as we strive to maintain the delicate balance that defines and controls our lives.
Ashley Billman is a graduate of Washington and Lee and is currently pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Virginia. She has previously published reviews in Shenandoah.