Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes
Martha Long
(Seven Stories)
Here are several events in the life of Martha, living in the 1950s Dublin slums when she's between the ages of four and eight:
  • Martha arrives home late one night. Jackser [her step-father] "ran at me an punched me in me head. He kept batterin me wit his fists. Me ears was bleedin, an he picked me up and threw me across the room. I hit me face against the fireplace." (p. 106).

  • Martha is feeding the baby, and her step-father sees her take a taste of the baby's food, so "he gave me a punch in the side of the head. I was sent flying, an the bowl upended over the babby. Then he gave me a kick an lifted me by the hair of me head." (p. 78).

  • She brings cigarettes home to Jackser, but when he asks if there was change, she says no. "He picked up the heavy fryin pan and whacked me. I ducked me head, an he brought it down on me back. The pain send me crashin down te the floor, an before I could get me breath he yanked me back on me feet by me hair." (p. 120).

  • She watches Jackser "flingin poor Teddy [her younger brother] across te the bed. I charge for the door, an he grabs me by the hair and punches me in the face. An me nose shoots out blood like a fountain. Then he opens the door an slams me across the hall, flyin through the air until I hit the woman's door opposite ... I lay like a heap or rubbish on the ground, pumpin blood everywhere." (p. 219).

  • Her mother is pregnant (again), and Martha is looking at her belly, and she wants to know what Martha is staring at, so Jackser starts strangling her. "I couldn't breathe... An he stuck me head into a lump of shit the babby had done in the corner. Then he lifted me into the air again an threw me on the floor." (p. 172).

  • "There was a second of silence while Jackser took in wha was goin on, an then he lifted me by me arm an landed me at the cot ... [and] gave me a smack on the side of me head. It sent me flyin..."(p. 184).
And, then, yes, on page 191 - 192, Martha gets raped. By one of Jackser's friends, a man named Moocher. And, then, immediately after that, by Jackser.

The scene is graphic, very graphic. Perhaps too graphic.

§   §   §

I am trying to think on a reader, one of common sensibilities, one with some curiosity about the world. I am trying to think if this (let's say typical) reader would want to plunk down $27 for a 450-page book, much of which is given over to senseless brutality. Page after page, scene after scene. No detail omitted.

The author has done a fine job of setting up the tale of a young girl living in the worst of Dublin slums in the 1950s. And then the author proceeds to see to it that she gets hit, smashed, banged, struck, thrown, shoved against the wall, yanked by her hair, pushed out and held out the window (almost falling), mangled, bopped, and thwacked again. And raped. Again and again.

To the point that the reader begins to beg for mercy. And then after no mercy is forthcoming, wondering why we must be subject to this repetition.

A serious novel must utilize selectivity in scenes of love, and in scenes of play, and in scenes of violence. It is best not to turn it into a Rambo movie.

In one way, the repetition is valid: if an eight-year-old girl is trapped with a sadist, her life must become an endlessly cycle of cruelty and soon time must bend back on itself as innocence becomes ravaged repeatedly to where there is no exit.

But the reader has a choice. Unlike to the victim, the reader can refuse to subject herself to more non-stop stomach-churning violence. The reader can merely lay the book aside and forget it. I don't want to put up with her (or me) being slapped around anymore. I'm done with it.

Which I suggest should not be the purpose of a book in the first place.

For the narrative must be in balance. The wretched and the wonderful, the hideous and the happy, the drear and the delightful. There has to be a certain delicacy (if I may use that word) ... even in the worst opprobrium. If one tempers horror, it can, in an expert's hand, make it even more horrific. But an overdose floods the system, leaves but despair behind, turns us listless and disinterested.

There are occasional flashes of warmth and light here, but they are so rare as to be strike one as an error of judgment, an error in the author's obsessive journey.

One night, on a borrowed radio, Martha has the chance to listen to a program coming from the BBC.

    I heard the most beautiful music, an suddenly I was outa me body an flyin. An I wanted te cry inside meself. I wasn't dead any more, I was lifted away, far away. I can do anythin. I can be somebody, I can be beautiful, I can be gentle, I can be rich, I can smell good. The world is waitin for me. I can be what I want. Then it ended. An I was back in the room. I opened me eyes slowly an took in everythin aroun me. One day I'll be able te stop this. Nobody will keep me down. Ill work hard, an I'll be at the top, cos I don't want anyone lookin down on me. I want te be in a position, if someone treats me like dirt, cos they think they're better than me, I'll be able te say, 'Ye're not comin te me cocktail party!' An the best bit is, they didn't know I was rich, cos braggin about it is no good, they have to be friends wit me cos they like me. Tha's the only way they'll know.

This passage with its warmth and ray of hope feels like a mistake. In fact, the very title of the book seems to be a mistake. It reads like a joke, an echo of the very old Irish flirt song, "Ma, he's makin' eyes at me!"

This draws us in, so early on we stay with it because we know there will be an end to it: they will move out, the police will come, Martha will grow up, the neighbors will band together to prevent any more of this abuse, the brute will die a horrible death.

But none of these things come to pass and all turns skewed. The book devolves into what one of our critics recently labeled "reader abuse." It is that point in the book where it ceases to be an adventure in change, and may even turn sociological, might be confused for a treatise out of Kraft-Ebbing.

At this point, many of us will abandon ship, leaving behind nothing more than best wishes for the unfortunate few who will choose to soldier on with such a heavy, brutish plotline.

--- Leslie Whittaker, MA
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