Larry Fondation is the author of Angry Nights (1994), Common Criminals: L.A. Crime Stories (2002), Fish, Soap and Bonds (2007), and Uncommon Denominators (2009).
The first and third are novels; the second and fourth are collections of short stories. Martyrs and Holymen (2013) belongs in the second category. The most frequent setting used by Fondation is Los Angeles, but in this work he also locates the action in a nature setting and in Iraq. Here is a representative excerpt that ties the urban and rural together:
The parallels between the desert and the inner city seem to me to be both self-evident and uncanny:
Both stark, the shapes all-vertical and horizontal—with little in between, straight lines, high walls—covered with graphics; graffiti and petroglyphs.
The feeling of abandonment in both places is misleading—these environments are populated in their nooks and crannies, in vacant basements or underground burrows—punctuated by violence: the firing of weapons, the nighttime hunt of the owl, the click of a switchblade, the snake’s teeth snapping off the tail of a lizard—frightened, scampering, escaping with a third of its body gone and missing. Surviving still.
Much hidden life. Much nocturnal life. A quality of darkness that is truly dark. Light—when it appears—gloating with glare and a grimace: the halogen streetlight and the desert sun.
In harsh locales, the furtive are the best adapted.
Fondation is terse, with some of the pieces barely filling a generously spaced page or two. His writing often goes for the gritty and ugly, with the very occasional lyrical touch as in the above passage (one feels its presence in the prose like one feels broken glass underfoot), but not out of perversity, though perversity is presented. Instead, those facets indicate his commitment to portraying (mostly male) loners and alcoholics, the violent and unhinged, and soldiers who have either returned from the latest Iraq war or who are still there (physically or psychologically).
Martyrs and Holymen has six sections: “Introductory Rites,” “Creeps,” “Interlude,” “Heroes,” “Closing Rites,” and “Epilogue.” Each section bears a Latin epigraph, such as Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you) at the beginning and Ite in pace (Go in peace) at the end. There are rare mentions of a higher power, and ease of mind is fleeting. Fondation has always been good at conveying the impression that his characters could be neighbours. Fetishes are shared—for women’s feet, dirty or clean, for golden showers—as are predilections—an aggressiveness that threatens to become bloody—but their voices are not monotonous or unimaginatively rendered. As in his earlier books, Fondation presents us with a sub-class of people whose aims are modest, but compulsive, for the next drink, fuck or violent encounter.
The two most substantial sections, “Creeps” and “Heroes,” contain the bulk of the stories, which are, for the most part, first-person narratives by men. “Closed Door Policy,” the first story in “Creeps,” begins this way:
We pulled at the door of the bar.
“It’s not open,” I said.
“Kick the door in,” she said.
“Heroes” starts with “Repatriation,” a third-person tale of a vet newly returned from Iraq. He takes a bus from his base to rejoin his wife in their apartment:
He closed and locked the door.
He took her on the couch.
He fucked her fast and furious.
When he released his hands from around her neck, his cum shot deep inside her, she was definitely cold and lifeless and very dead.
The casual criminality of the two drinkers and the mindless, murderous thinking of the soldier are on the same spectrum. Can we relate to these people? At first this seems a style that prefers stereotypes to characterization. Nothing here would be what publishers want when it comes to creating figures to whom readers can relate. Frankly, we would have the same problem warming to any martyrs and holymen that the title states we will encounter, not only because it was ever thus—how do you measure yourself against this or that saint?—but because for some time now words like martyr and holymen have been debased descriptors in news stories about this or that person who flies a plane into a building, sets an IED, or straps on a bomb to be set off in a marketplace.
None of those figures appear in Fondation’s book except peripherally and as provocations for selfish regret and snarling contempt. Three stories from the section “Heroes” illustrate this. In “An Insurrection” a solder sees a girl “running in the rain, without a headscarf… I could see her hair, snaggled in the wind. She was barefoot. I fall in love with barefoot women.” She is considered a menace: “The shots from a rooftop—I’m not sure which one, not that it matters—cut the girl down quickly. The shots were many. She fell first forward, then back. Like JFK, I think.” The narrator of “The Common Inquisitor” states that he is proud of his job interrogating people, though patriotism is only partially the reason why he tortures people. “My dick gets real hard when I hit people.” Further: “When I get my fist down some sand nigger’s throat, and I’m about to rip his goddamn lungs out with my bare hands, he don’t fucking lie.” Deeply entrenched in the process, he’s not prone to doubt about his mission: “I get paid to proffer violence, which is great. A government issue paycheck.” For those who disagree with the ethical nature and usefulness of this behaviour his response is: “Fuck the Washington Post and all those limp-wristed pieces of shit.” His future looks good, for once his tour of duty is over he’ll work with “a private contractor. Assigned to all that rendition kind of shit. I can’t wait.” In “Confrontation” we are given a tortured man’s perspective as he thinks of his female and male tormentors. “What seems to be a small boot presses against my throat. I think I hear her voice.”
Keeping in mind how Western society distrusts the two religious terms, we need to ask whom Fondation believes the martyrs and holymen are. If I read the work correctly, and consider that the title of the book and its sections are deliberately misleading and inadequate, forcing us to question their applicability, then I come to a conclusion that their purpose is far grimmer than simple irony. The people in these two roles are not terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists but Americans.
This theme is clearest in the depiction of members of the military who delight in war and seldom forgive even the slightest infraction. After finishing their service, or between tours, they return to a country that is filled with citizen-consumers who are just as much servants of their desires and as bereft of selflessness. In the story “Tit for Tat” in “Creeps,” a man saves a boy from being run over by a bus. When thanked by his mother he says: “‘I saved your kid’s life… I want you to suck my dick.’” He gets what he wants, thanks her and leaves. There is a price exacted from everyone to satisfy immediate and earthly demands. By the end of the book a reader might wonder if the real war should be against poverty, ignorance, and coldness, and conducted in the United States. Both army personnel, and the countrymen they have travelled half a world allegedly to protect, are damaged, and hardened to the finer emotions. Hatred and self-loathing are imprinted on these souls who, according to the epigraphs, are in desperate need of our prayers, and who are martyrs to prevalent conditions in their country.
In The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature (2009), Curtis White provides an insight into the nature of the United States:
The unpleasant truth of the American political system is that a person can be the nicest sort, a hard worker, who cans her own vegetables, takes the dog to the vet regularly, cares for aged parents, and still feels that it’s in her interest to vote for a major party candidate who is little more than a war criminal when it comes to international politics.
A war criminal elected by the people implicates the same people who put him or her in office. The innocent are few in number. The criminality found in particular places in Fondation’s earlier works has extended everywhere. His emphasis on the marginal has always contained a criticism of capitalism that, to quote White again, is “about the self-interested pursuit of private wealth through whatever means are necessary, if not violent, fine, if violent, also fine.” The violence of war turns out to be little different from the violence visited on people supposedly safe at home.
Unlike in Fish, Soap and Bonds, where three characters are given histories, Martyrs and Holymen features a gallery of mostly nameless people who, if met as individuals, likely would elicit our contempt. Shown as a tattered army of the Godless (a possible categorization) seeking to inflict and escape damage, their united predicament encourages us to view this work as an indication that a nation’s self-image and its exceptionalism are illusions that are no longer sustainable. Readers could consider the possibility that this book, indicative of Foundation’s oeuvre, also indicts a system where violence and debasement fill the lives of a subgroup that does not think beyond its own appetites, and does not share the optimism, flickering or more sustained, exhibited by people who cohere behind a cause or against an act of injustice and seek redress from political authorities.
Fondation’s characters often feel powerless, and we are given reasons why, such as a poor education—though there are those who read Kant and Hegel—and the debilitating effect of alcohol and drugs. But there is also present an existential set of concerns that, since they are present from the first page to the last, bear the traits of a war more than a crisis. “Cut Lip,” the first story of the book, is set in a bar where two strangers meet, the male narrator and a woman with a “wound… still bleeding a little” (and much can be made of that). They drink a great deal, and at the end leave together:
Outside there were no shadows. I think our shadows died. There was nothing else either. No other buildings, no cars, no other people. The landscape was full of nothing at all. We walked away, down the dark street, holding onto each other, towards the end of night.
“Epilogue” contains one story, “Epilogue (‘The Holy Ones’),” that reads, in its entirety:
argumentative light –
particle and wave;
Hand-in-hand—drunk, limping and triumphant,
We sway down the squalid street.
The passage from “Cut Lip” echoes the title of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s first novel, Journey to the End of the Night (1932), and may also contain a reference to the shadow found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938). But we don’t need to look to other works of literature to draw a message from the work. That last image establishes the tone for the rest of the book, and it is not overturned by the last story, where the words “drunk, limping and triumphant” paint the United States as heady after an exhibition of imperial power, pulling out of Iraq in international disgrace, and leaving abundant evidence of its failure for its part in Iraq’s decline from the status of a nation to an aggregation of tribes, sects, militant groups, and a rump country. (Afghanistan comes to mind also.) The undefined “we” staggering along at the close of Larry Fondation’s Martyrs and Holymen are no wiser than when they were surrounded by blackness, but they believe they have achieved some sort of victory. Sober readers come away with a vision of the United States as miserable, hopeless, and anarchic.
Martyrs and Holymen, by Larry Fondation, illustrations by Kate Ruth | Raw Dog Screaming Press | 162 pages | $31.48 | paper | ISBN # 978-1935738442