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This Ramshackle Tabernacle, by Sam Martin: A Review

This Ramshackle Tabernacle, by Samuel Thomas Martin, Breakwater Books, 2010, pp. 216. Image pinched from Sam's site.

I keep reading short story collections that take me by surprise with their intensity and impact. In fact, This Ramshackle Tabernacle, by Samuel Thomas Martin, affected me so deeply that this is my fourth attempt at blogging a review. I’ve deleted countless paragraphs and started over many times, unsatisfied with what I’ve written. And there’s so much to say, to highlight, but then I’d be stripping you of the optimal reading experience. I want to say: just buy it. Read it. You’ll be hard-pressed to be unmoved.

But that’s cheating.

This Ramshackle Tabernacle is comprised of twelve linked short stories set in northeastern Ontario, in two fictional towns based on the area between Belleville (where I live) and Bancroft. (Martin’s from Gilmour, not far from Belleville.) We’re talking backwoods here, and Sam makes this setting so real for the readers that even those unfamiliar with the area will smell the campfire smoke and wintry air, the lake water, boat petrol, and pines. They’ll hear the sharp crack of twigs underfoot, the echoing blast of a shotgun, loons ululating their evensong. There is one story, one of the most heartbreaking ones, that takes place in Toronto, and Sam makes the grunge of downtrodden areas and the contrast of a university campus so palpable that if you live there and read this book, you might feel weird walking by those places after. Setting—whether in the country north of 7 (as we say), the quintessentially Canadian Algonquin Park, or Toronto—is an integral part of this book and serves as a strong background to the violence and searching that typifies the stories.

Populated with characters who’ve suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and distress, who cut themselves, who commit suicide, who die as a result of a bully attack (this story, “Shaver,” was distressing and made me cry), who are saved from drowning by the (later) accidentally drowned (the saved could not save in this case), who are left behind, who become drug addicts and commit a murder while on a horrifying high (“Eight-Ball,” a story so tragic it made me ache), who have lost themselves and are searching for God, relief, release, meaning—but also those who have found these things, like the inimitable and memorable Annie Chizim in “Cliff Jumping”—these stories deeply, searchingly explore darkness and light, damnation and redemption, faith and folly. But don’t let the above litany of violent situations put you off. It may sound relentless—and indeed Martin doesn’t spare us from details (thank goodness!)—but it serves a greater purpose than to shock or depress us. It’s also not unrealistic to encounter such things in this sort of area, and it’s not unusual for any character to be struck by a theme of occurrences, by the humanity of them, the commonality linking them, so that he’s compelled, as are others, to ask questions.

Maybe this is how God bleeds himself into the world: with the coming of night and darkness. Incarnate long before the sun rises. Sometimes I feel like I’m still waiting for the sun to rise: like it hasn’t really risen these past three years. Wondering, if God’s hand is there in the dark, why doesn’t he reach out and touch us?

Importantly, the connections Sam makes between stories, the links both obvious and surprising, are well wrought and never forced. No story is contrived in order to fit the book’s intent, and neither, apart from two or three metaphors, is the God factor too purposely injected or too coolly dealt with in order to make it accessible. Instead, the book is accessible because of Martin’s ability to focus on the universal human struggle. This is an achievement in itself, to keep the book attractive to all readers while having Christian characters or making the main theme the search for God in a violent world. We see fine examples of this accessibility in other CanLit books that portray characters questing for reconciliation with or truth in their religious upbringing, for example, in Miriam Toew’s A Complicated Kindness.

While certain characters reappear in several stories, we often see them from different perspectives. Even Bill, the main protagonist who, as it turns out, is writing the stories, appears in both first and third person. This technique is intriguing because we see more of a character this way, through their own eyes, through the eyes of others, but it can also be somewhat of a barrier: although I was very impressed by how well Martin brought the book full-circle, the first and last stories forming a significant frame around the well-organized darkness within, it wasn’t until after I’d finished the book and began sifting through the stories again that I fully realized who was who and how the stories were linked. I didn’t always remember character’s names as I read, till farther on, so that when they reappeared later, it didn’t occur to me that a person was someone I’d already met in another story. I’d list this as a criticism if I trusted my memory, because recognizing the characters when they appear again is rather crucial to the book, but as it is, it could be just my own flaws as a reader or the time I left in between each story. The realizations I made afterward were startling, not only because then I saw more closely how characters respond to their pasts, and there is character development throughout the book, but also because the stories took on a deeper significance in terms of how the lives of those around him affected Bill (the author of the stories), and how each character affected the others he or she knew. This thus further impacted my reading experience. I feel a second reading, which I’m more than willing to do since I like the book so much, will lead to an even richer experience and the impression of a more cohesive book.

None of the themes in this collection—particularly the search for meaning, God, redemption, happiness, reconciliation, and acceptance—is by any means original, yet This Ramshackle Tabernacle is indeed one of the most unique collections I’ve ever read. I’ve never read anything that so boldly yet sympathetically visualizes Everyman’s wrestling with God, perhaps in the way Ben, in a strong story called “Roulette,” wrestles a grizzly. The stories are visceral, raw, disturbing, and startling in their vision of truth or reality—I have the incomparable sensation when holding this book that it contains more than simply stories with characters; it feels, rather, as though the book houses real people I’m reluctant to shut in between the covers.

Lest you feel this all sounds too grim, I assure you the stories are also wonderfully tinged with humour, as in “Rosary,” in particular.

Any of youse ever been on a canoe trip?

The three guys shrug their shoulders, and the two city-born prissy queens from Toronto give me bitchy stares and mutter something about their social workers signing them up for this stupid f-ing program.

First camp rule: No swearing. So, drop the f-bomb out of your vocabulary along with shit, ass, bitch, damn and bastard. That should be the last time you hear those words. Okay?

More shrugs. More stares.

It’s not that hard and I’m not a Nazi about it so don’t freak out.

When’s this fuckin trip start? a fifteen-year-old wigger with his belt buckled at his crotch asks smugly as he thrusts one hand down the front of his pants.

You forget where your pocket is, Meoff? Or should I call you Jack?

What the fu—

That’ll be the second time in less than two sentences, so just chill out, man.

There’s also a diversity in the style of the stories, although technically they’re written by the same character. Aside from the different tenses, character perspectives, and narrative points of view, Martin demonstrates a versatility of skill. One story in particular comes to mind, called “Becoming Maria,” a run-on inner monologue by Maria herself, a cutter, that aptly suggests her instability. I admired Martin’s ability to pull this off, not only from a female perspective but in such a unique voice. “Eight-ball” portrays Harold—(who appears earlier in another story as a quiet young boy), a man with naive dreams who moves to Toronto to make it big as a violinist but instead becomes a drug addict—and also reflects Martin’s keen ability to “look [his] neighbour in the eye,” and imagine what might be going on inside. As I mentioned earlier, this story broke my heart.

In spite of maybe three minor annoyances—which I’ve decided not to go into here since they are more things a copyeditor rather than reviewer might note, and I don’t want to negatively influence your reading by making you look out for them—I have to say, and I’m not being hyperbolic here, that this little debut collection of hard-hitting stories may actually be a book that changes my life as an aspiring author. The stories have definitely affected me as a reader, as all great short stories do. And while it is not perfect, as I say, the issues were minor enough that I willingly tossed them aside in favour of seeing the larger, deeper effort. This is a powerful book. It deserves much more attention than it’s had, though it’s not been ignored, either, having reaped positive reviews and also been a finalist for both the 2010 Winterset Award and the 2011 ReLit Award for Short Fiction.

The book’s certainly had much attention from me. As I did with This Cake is for the Party, I got intimate with it: I brushed my teeth in front of it, I sweated on the treadmill with it, I ate cottage cheese and tomato and crackers and peanut butter with it; I spattered pickle juice on it. I dogeared the pages, I folded them backwards over the spine as I read. I flattened the spine, I shoved the book in my bag every morning and after every time I’d sneaked a few minutes with it at work. I slept with it by my side. I loved this book, for so many reasons, but mainly because while I was reading it I was deeply moved, so much so that sometimes I had to put it down after a story, only for a minute or two, to digest what I’d just read and quietly admire (er, and resent!) Martin’s skills. In Salty Ink, Chad Pelley, fellow East Coaster and author of Away from Everywhere (coming up on this blog soon), wrote of This Ramshackle Tabernacle: “A compelling [collection]. It is emotionally engaging and impressively written. [This] book will rattle you.”

For once an endorsement is absolutely true. (Actually, they all are in this case.) The book did rattle me. I was disturbed and uncomfortable reading some of it, but it was a good kind of disturbed, the kind that makes you admire the writer’s ability and skill, that compels you to keep reading.

More good news is that Sam has another book coming out this spring already, mentioned in the Quill & Quire as one of this coming season’s most anticipated, called A Blessed Snarl, about a husband’s suicidal leap of faith after his wife leaves him for someone she met on Facebook, and his son’s relationship with a woman with a mysterious past.

After such an impressive debut as This Ramshackle Tabernacle, I’m confident this new novel is going to cause a stir. I look forward to it.

***

Thank you to Sam’s friend, whoever you are, who came into the store that day in 2010 and bought the book and told me about it when I asked. And thank you to Sam, for sending the book, for being a hand on my back, for helping to keep me writing when I want to quit.