‘Once you Go Back’ by Douglas Martin
Author: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
May 26, 2010
Remember that time in your life when you didn’t know if you would ever learn how to breathe? No, you knew you were breathing, but you wondered if it would ever feel like it was supposed to; with dire precision, Douglas Martin nails the claustrophobia of growing up. Martin succeeds at delivering an adult’s voice with a child’s awareness, a voice at once aloof and familiar, deftly steering clear of the typical nostalgia in order to convey a loneliness so intimate that even a catalog of deteriorating home life becomes something almost like hope.
This is the life of a young queer kid in a working-class household trapped between poverty and the violent dreams of the middle class. As his sister grows into a sexual world he isn’t allowed, their overworked mother leaves him at the mercy of an enraged stepfather. No longer can he rely on the shelter of childhood games, a place where he and his sister became twins in their imagination. This is the time “before I got too brave too often.” Imagine lying on the carpet in the bathroom with the dryer turned on, all the excesses of desire a cushion between leg hairs and carpet fibers, “like being on the beach.” For just a moment, forget about anyone who might be on the other side of the door or windows: “I know if the feelings inside of me become too excessive, everything will be lost.” It’s this loss that we are drawn to, if only we can glimpse “a place for boys like me to meet boys like me.”
We are not there yet, and that is the beauty of this book: somehow Martin doesn’t ruin it by presenting a narrative more tidy or direct than the awkwardness and grace of a child on the verge.