Review by: KEN KORCZAK
What was it that Hamlet called it? Oh yeah: “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” The Free Dictionary helpfully fleshes out this phrase as, “bad things that happen to you and that are not your fault.”
That describes the troubled life of Billy Price, an ordinary middle-class British boy growing up with his mom and dad in a nice home in some pleasant Anytown in the U.K.
But as we enter the life of Billy, we find his family living under pall cast by the recent death of his little sister from cruel cancer. Dad is coping by drinking to much and mom appears to be having a sexual dalliance … with the lesbian next door.
If that’s not enough for a 13-year-old, just wait. His life is about to get worse … much worse. In fact, it’s going to get bloody. And so begins he long, troubled journey of Billy Price. He moves into adulthood straddling one crisis to the next.
In choosing “adversity” as his theme, author PETER MARTIN is proposing a scenario suggesting: “Let’s see how much calamity we can throw at an ordinary human being and see how he holds up, how he copes, how it affects his mental health and his social adjustment in society.”
That’s what makes this a fairly absorbing read. Mr. Martin is an agile writer who commands a lean style devoid of digression and cumbersome language. This keeps the plot and narrative moving forward at brisk pace. One marker of a good book is when you get to the end of a chapter and you get that urge that says, “Oh well, I might as well read one more to see what happens next …” and this book has that quality.
But let me add this, and if I might borrow a descriptor from the world of cinema, this is a B-List Novel rather than an A-List novel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, so read on and let me explain.
You know how when you’re watching a movie and you are fully aware that what you’re watching is a “B Movie.” It’s not a top-flight, high-budget major studio A-List flick with major stars and expensive production values … and yet, you still find yourself enjoying this low-budget B-Movie to an unusual degree.
IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY has that aura of a B Movie that somehow transcends itself to offer a higher level of interest and enjoyment.
But the reason I categorize this as a “B Novel” is a decidedly odd placement of philosophic or perhaps epistemological depth on behalf of what constitutes “meaning” from the perspective of the viewpoints of these characters.
What I mean by that is, the ultimate sense of attainment presented is a kind of flat secular salvation. In other words, what is judged to be “successful” and the achievement of “happiness” is narrowly defined within the realm of material success, or in terms of one’s social position and perhaps one’s gaining a healthy relationship, and then maintaining that relationship. Billy is plagued throughout his life by relationships that don’t last, even with his own children.
At the same time, children are portrayed in terms of something to “have” and “appreciate” and “enjoy” not terribly different from the way one might “have” and “appreciate” and “enjoy” a purchase from Ikea.
I’m not saying that Peter Martin should have added some kind of lofty religious or spiritual theme. There are more ways than that to create a universe of nuanced depth. But the real tragedy, for me, is how these characters remain rutted within a mundane realm of ordinary pursuit of jobs, a modicum of social status, maybe a nice flat. It’s what Henry Thoreau called, “A life of quiet desperation.”
Since Mr. Martin is British, I’ll use two of his literary countrymen for comparison — Thomas Hardy and John Cowper Powys. These two writers spring to mind because they, too, created relatable characters and then proceeded to torment them with earthly problems over the span of their lifetimes.
But Hardy and Powys built a deeper dimensionality of existence and meaning for their characters – and they did so largely by leveraging the powerful presence of nature, the earth and proximity to ancient sites and history. In this way they imbued their character’s predicaments with a greater sense of tragedy, but also heights of joyful attainment that transcended mere economic/social success. That’s because they had placement within a more profound reality. In this way Hardy and Powys elicited a haunting depth of meaning to their narratives.
So, what I’m saying is, IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY is a perfectly fine novel as it stands in the B-Novel realm. It’s a compelling story well told and difficult to put down. A certain greater depth of meaningful dimensionality would have elevated it to A-List status — but, you know, sometimes we don’t want to read “great literature.” We just want to read a good book.
NOTE: To find other Peter Martin titles, click here: PETER MARTIN
Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS
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