Sweet was my discovery this summer of Break the Skin. While it’s Lee Martin’s seventh novel, it is the first Martin novel I’ve read, and I regret having missed his other six. That after being entranced by his writing – seductive in its warmth and intimacy – and by the women who populate Break the Skin — Laney, Miss Baby, Delilah and Rose — whose desperate need for love drive them to make life-changing mistakes.
And then there’s Martin’s deep dive into the culture of small Midwest towns, in this case, New Hope and Mount Gilead, Illinois. His characters work the midnight shift at Wal-Mart, live in double-wides or small box houses surrounded by open fields and, on a Friday night, head to a tavern filled with shift workers from the poultry plant where a local band likely will play “Stairway to Heaven” and other songs from the 1970s. You can almost smell the open fields and hear the pickups driving down the road and feel the resigned contentment that this is as good a place as any to live one’s life.
Only things aren’t so good for Laney Volk. The novel opens with the local police escorting her to the station for questioning about a murder. She decides to tell them everything about her friendship with the tough, 35-year-old Delilah Dade from Shady Acres Trailer Park and the conniving young Rose MacAdow, a friendship that became deceitful and vengeful due to Rose and Delilah’s mutual love for a musician named Tweet, a.k.a. Russell Swain. The fierce competition for his love stirred up a mess of trouble and put 19-year-old Laney in the middle.
Martin creates the irrational thinking of these women, who will do anything for love, with remarkable insight. He knows just how much of their overwhelming need to allow into the narrative without creating a melodramatic burden that would trigger a snappy response of “get over it.” He writes so well, so credibly, about them we know they can’t get over it, and he keeps us hooked into their emotions by skillfully drawing us into the suspenseful consequences.
Meanwhile, Laney’s boyfriend Lester disappears and shows up 700 miles away in Denton, Texas. As an Iraq war vet, he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome that causes him occasionally to forget who he is or where he’s from. He has no idea he loves Laney, or that he advised Delilah about finding a silencer for her five-shot pistol. Betty Ruiz, a.k.a. Miss Baby, a Denton tattoo artist, takes advantage of his amnesia and convinces Lester he’s her husband.
Miss Baby is another member of the sisterhood of lonely hearts. She’s also the strongest character in this novel with a voice you won’t soon forget. (The novel alternates between her and Laney’s first person voices.) Like Laney, she gets caught in the middle of her loved ones’ troubles, notably her brother’s misadventures stealing cattle. And then, Miss Baby hears a TV newscaster say Lester’s wanted for questioning in a murder in Mount Gilead, the same murder the police believe Laney may know something about.
All the deceit and blindness for the sake of love, both in Texas and Illinois, unravel at this point, and I couldn’t put the book down. In Break the Skin, simple lives needlessly go sour with powerful consequences. As Laney explains to the police, “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.”