The fifty-six fictions in Larry Fondation’s newest collection of L.A. stories are so textually uncanny they transcend the “obstreperous asphalt” his previous four installments inhabit, thrusting readers into a meta-violent Otherspace where narratives about the fringe of the fringe of contemporary American culture sublimate and ferment like a hard, sage scotch. In Martyrs and Holymen, Los Angeles is a state of mind landscaped by personalities and dangers not unlike those faced by the vanguard of the war on terror, a war that, through Fondation’s texts, appears borderless and without end. In this smartly written collection, brazen satire, fragmented narrative, and compressed, minimalist prose band together to create a sharp treble hook Fondation uses to pull readers through the war-torn conscience of our toxic, post-millennial terrain. Along the way, readers encounter social pariahs who, in spite of their self-destructive ways, often exhibit more humanity than their oppressors.
Martyrs and Holymen is smart in how it contextualizes urban grit and gore by deconstructing cityspace and criticizing delusions of hard, fast social distinctions. Fondation purposefully conflates the evils of warmongering at home and abroad, resulting in a viscerally moving and refreshingly unapologetic satire, one reliant on the disorienting and disarming powers of the grotesque in order to gain readers’ acknowledgement of a human condition that has become both intrinsically violent and compulsively sexual. Because of this, Fondation’s prose is hauntingly reminiscent of Bukowski’s Love is a Dog From Hell (1977) and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964). Vignettes from the book’s initial section titled “Creeps” expose the reader to the uncensored exploits and testimonies of various men battling corruption within themselves and the fringe communities they occupy, while the narratives of on- and off-duty soldiers in the book’s larger section “Heroes” depict (in “stark” contrast to its title) the similarly depraved state of America’s “official” warrior. Blurring the lines between creeps and heroes is essential to Fondation’s philosophical bent, which aims to obliterate the terms altogether. If no distinction can be made between the false dichotomy of a bloodlusting American war “hero” and the mangled veteran in a motorized wheelchair who has become “a roadside attraction,” then new approaches to understanding the extent of America’s social damages are necessary. Disrupting the social lexicon in this way places Fondation’s text at the forefront of a new and frightening kind of Americana.
Archetypes disintegrate into flawed, unpredictable human beings in Martyrs and Holymen. It becomes clear by the book’s end that war is ubiquitous, depravity—inescapable. All of Fondation’s characters are embattled, each of them both victim and assailant. This is evident in various narratives within the collection, particularly in those excerpts that purposefully confuse war and city spaces. For instance, the description of L.A. and desert in “High Winds” reflects the qualities of the dispossessed characters Fondation depicts: “The beauty of starkness is the beauty of the harsh and the unforgiving. It is the aesthetic of emptiness and loneliness, belied by the hidden rattle and hum…. I like my beauty to contain the possibility of meanness.” “High Winds” is one of several latchkey narratives to construct a diegetic space against which the other stories play out. The narrator’s transition back and forth in and out of consciousness between desert and city, of which “the parallels…seem to [him] to be both self-evident and uncanny,” bolsters a sense of borderlessness, of indefinable space that proves ripe for the remainder of the collection’s narratives. Los Angeles is Iraq; Afghanistan is Palmdale.
Another crucial and astonishing text in the collection is “Darkness Drops,” which contains (arguably) the least tormented love relationship in the book, one between two male soldiers. “Darkness Drops” serves the purpose of contrasting the ephemeral and anoymous sexploits of other personas in the collection and contains some of Fondation’s most impactful prose. “I do not know how to sleep with a dead body,” the narrator admits, “but...