February 6, 2020: “The Mutual UFO Network” by Lee Martin

Good afternoon, Story366!

Today, I hope, is rock bottom. Today is the day we feared was coming, for so long, the day after the acquittal. Today is the day of gloating, the day of smirks, the day of feigned righteous indignation. There was a rally—because of course there was—and a sarcastic, lie-filled speech. There was the newspaper held in the air, the word “Acquitted!” marking the headline. I wonder why that was necessary, as it’s, well, a newspaper, and a USA Today at that. It was almost like a student citing a source in a paper: “According to a cover story from the February 6, 2020, edition of The USA Today, ….” Social media would be a nightmare, only I’ve done a good job farming my friend lists. I have seen some spats on friends’ walls, GOPers picking fights, tossing insults, posting memes and gifs and other picture-based communications. A family member who’s no doubt thrilled tried calling me this morning and I didn’t answer.

They say the good thing about rock bottom is that you have only one place to go. Usually, I’m not a big fan of what “they” say, and am not expecting sunshine and civility tomorrow. I am at least hopeful, though, that this chapter is done and a new one can begin. I’m not sure what that chapter’s going to be—Iowa continues to befuddle themselves and the nation—but it’s a new chapter and anything can happen.

Making me feel a lot better today was reading from Lee Martin‘s latest short story collection, The Mutual UFO Network, out in 2018 from Dzanc Books (to note: my original press). I’ve long been a fan of Martin’s, ever since he visited Bowling Green over twenty years ago and I read his debut book and collection, The Least You Need to Know. Martin has since written ten other books, one of which, The Bright Forever, was a Finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. He’s also one of the more affable guys in the world, and chatting over the years at AWP, I found out he went to high school in the same conference as I did and he likes the Cubs. Good guy, Lee Martin.

“The Mutual UFO Network” the story is about this kid named Nathan, late teens, who lives with his dad after his folks have split. His mom is now in Virgninia, selling timeshares and making a go of it. The story opens with Nathan’s dad lying in the yard, meticulously picking delicate pea vines out of the grass so he can weave them onto a trellis. Dad spends three days doing this, so much time, a neighbor comes by to ask Nathan if his dad’s all right or if he’s died out there and no one’s noticed.

Mom, off in Virginia, wants Nathan to spend some time with her. At first, it’s just that, then she tries baiting him with longer-term plans, suggesting he enroll in college classes somewhere near her instead of near the dad. Given how much fun Dad’s being—grumpy and lying in the grass with pea vines—Nathan is prone to take Mom up on her offer. Some talk between Mom and Nathan indicate that Nathan should be pissed at his dad—his fault the marriage fell apart—that it’s weird he ever stayed with the dad to begin with. Martin, however, doesn’t tell us why. Not right away.

The setup for the story is a bit disconcerting—definitely a weird dynamic between father and son—but in other ways, it’s pretty pedestrian. Mom and Dad get divorced and son has to choose who to live with. That’s where Martin takes this story—where he takes a lot of his stories—to another level. Firstly, we’re lured into asking what Dad did, what made the separation his fault. We also find out that Nathan’s had a run-in with the law, but again, not specifically what, not right away. Again, makes you wonder, makes you keep reading.

Eventually, we find out the sordid details. Nathan had a peeping tom problem, making his way through the neighborhood, watching everyone in the cul-de-sac through their windows. None of it was sexual—so claims Nathan—just a lot of wholesome private time, families eating dinner, watching TV, folding their laundry. Eventually, someone catches him, blows the whistle, and voila, he’s the local perv. Nathan’s Dad talks him out of serious trouble, but the damage is done. This, to note, was all before Mom left, further begging the question: Why wouldn’t Nathan just pick up when he had the chance, go to Virginia and leave his sullied reputation behind?

Then there’s the Dad’s backstory, how he was a small-time grifter. Up until recently, he was running The Mutual UFO Network, a mail-order company that sold cheapo videotapes and DVDs of alien “sightings,” mostly backyard Frisbee tosses and the like. This was the family’s main income, at least until they got shut down. This mirrors when Nathan’s dad met Nathan’s mom back in college. He was selling Bicentennial Rocks—just plain rocks, but in 1976—out of a briefcase, and not doing too badly.

None of this, by the way, even constitutes the plot of “The Mutual UFO Network,” which Martin takes his time getting to. Eventually, Nathan heads to the airport to fly to Mom, but in the terminal, runs into some interesting characters. That’s when things start to happen happen, and where I’ll end. I’ve give so many of Martin’s secrets away already—gotta leave something left to discover.

I love the complexity of “The Mutual UFO Network,” how many little stories are tucked inside it. I especially admire how patient Martin is at unveiling each. It’s pages before we find out about the grifting, about the peeping, about all the blame that’s going on. Never would I have imagined Dad as a hustler when he’s on his belly in the garden, but when it happens, it makes sense. Nathan doesn’t seem like a sex criminal, and despite his pure intentions, that’s what he is. It’s all presented so convincingly, Martin’s mastery over these characters, over his narrative and arc, making it all work.

Other stories in the collection take a similar approach: We start with a seemingly innocuous set-up, but Martin keeps piling on the details, drawing out traits, painting a much larger picture. The second story, “Across the Street,” is about Jim, a middle-aged man whose parents move him into a house so he can make a go of it on his own. We don’t know why they have to do this, but the journey toward that revelation is filled with characters and changing perspectives, making it worth the wait. “White Dwarfs” is about a guy whose wife has disappeared, her car found on the side of the road with the hood open. Something happens later in that story that has nothing to do with his wife, but Martin makes it part of his story, makes it work.

Lee Martin has established himself as one of our leading fiction writers, producing award-winning novels, stories, and nonfiction. It was good for my soul to sit down with The Mutual UFO Network today, to spend time with his complex, satisfying stories and very real, very relatable characters. No better way to start that new chapter.