Book Review: Seaside Stories
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
There should be more African-American fiction like this, recapturing a
time when our communities were more-or-less intact and families were solid.
S. R. Martin, Jr., a former teacher of African American Studies at Evergreen
State College and author of this marvelous work, puts the readers in the
way-back machine and sends us back to his childhood neighborhood, Seaside,
on California's Monterrey Peninsula in the World War II era.
The pleasure we share with the author in discovering the quirks and follies of his characters in these vignettes is something that most Black folks will know. We've all know some of these people from our communities: Hucklebuck and Deke, Sista Sarah, Satch, Carter, Glorious, Mattie Phelps, Rev. Booker and the Hankersons, and the boys at Beckwith's barber shop. These stories brought back such sweet memories.
Mr. Martin also has a way with storytelling and a flair for the dramatic. A murderous fire in the story, "Cowboy's Dance," is the centerpiece in the fable of a senseless killing of Willie Russell James, a sometimes abusive drunk with bowed legs. The author's power is in the economy of his language, the humanity of his characters, and the assured choices of his fiction.
He knows his sense of place, where a community can be celebrating life with its warm chatter and glorious aromas of a church basement occupied by the sisters cooking dinners in his tale, "The Silver Kings." But with a seaside community, there is danger and finality in everyday life as when it mourns a young boy's days ended with a bloody run-in with a shark.
With the story, "Privacy," Rev. Booker, a holiness preacher has a tight rein on his boys; no games, movies, dances or watching TV. However, when a box of condoms is found in the boys' bedroom by their mother, the moment of truth arrives as she has to trust the explanation of her son against the temptation of the outside world. Every mother will love how she rationalizes what she does.
Some of the great novelists caution against too much description and verbose detail in fiction, too much fat and no muscle. Mr. Martin achieves a proper balance with his dialogue filling in the gaps in his characters' personalities, like his revealing talk from the startling story, "Glorious."
"If Doc saw how his ‘babies' carry on, I don't know what he'd say or do," Martin writes. "One of em has three babies and no husband anywhere to be seen. I'm not sure she even knows exactly who their daddies are. And she jus drops em on me to take care of without even asking. I mean she comes in from work, takes her shower and she's gone. ‘Don't wait up, Mom,' she hollers and she's out the door. And I don't see her again until morning when she's ready to go to work."Slightly sentimental but culturally accurate, Martin's Seaside Stories recall the best and the worst of our communities before the onslaught of integration and gentrification. The people in these stories are survivors, real folks with tragedies and triumphs. This perceptive book is one to be relished and enjoyed to the last page.