The idea that depression stalks behind creative talent is a familiar theme in American letters. William Styron's Darkness Visible, the recent death of David Foster Wallace — madness and genius, as tricky to disentangle as conjoined twins.
In David Lozell Martin's new memoir, Losing Everything, his 13th book but first foray into nonfiction, his schema is more knotty. You've got your External Reality Team, which you want to have at the controls. Then you have the Guys in the Back Row, the hecklers, the malcontents with their bad impulses and cluttered heaps of id. Tricky thing is, Martin believes it's the Guys that have provided him his greatest access to the wounded, beautiful characters that populate his best books.
There's the unconventional love affair of Sonny and Felicity in The Crying Heart Tattoo, the complicated allegiance of slow-unto-retarded Bear and disfigured Katherine Renault in Crazy Love, and the cast of misfits in The Beginning of Sorrows. If Martin muzzled the Guys in the Back Row, would his stories dry up?
He wasn't willing to take that chance, and the results were disastrous. In the summer of 2003, Martin was $60,000 in debt, his second marriage over and his mental and physical health on very shaky ground. This annus horribilis is chronicled unsentimentally, the kind of hard-times-and-empty-pockets world his characters often populate. The son of a crazy mother and abusive father, Martin goes from rags to riches and back to rags with little self-pity and fierce gallows humor. (There's a near-fatal constipation scene that will make you rip-snort with laughter.)
As stories of foreclosures, unemployment and food stamps crowd the news, Martin's new book is an especially poignant tale of loss and redemption. Disastrous relationships, depression and ill-considered moves (the worst of which is somewhere along Florida's Gulf Coast) — this once-successful writer, his characters having forsaken him, finds out the hardest story to tell is his own.
Laura Reiley is the Times' food critic. She can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.