OK, here are the ground rules: with the new novel “Martin Marten,” you’re going to have to suspend cynicism. You’ll need to relax all your “impossible” rules, curl yourself up in your favorite reading nook with a cup of something hot to imbibe, and simply let author Brian Doyle whisk you away on this expansive, free-spirited ride.
Doyle is the Portland author whose previous novels like “Mink River” and “Plover” featured characters that were complicated and quirky. He’s a guy with a penchant for piquant detail, and possibly a cosmic agenda. When you finish reading a novel by Doyle, you’re bound to feel more attuned to the universe.
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“Martin Marten” is the story of a community on a flank of Wy-East, the Native American term for a volcano that most of us muggles call Mt. Hood.
The title character is a pine marten that is coming of age in a forest not far from a tourist lodge.
But a 14-year-old boy named Dave is another principal in this book, and there are several other players in this tale, including (but not limited to) Dave’s kind and offbeat family; Dave’s best friend, named Moon; a musical Unabled Lady; Miss Moss, the general store proprietor; Miss Moss’s suitor Mr. Douglas (who makes his living as a trapper and snowplow operator); Edwin, Mr. Douglas’s horse; and an iconic bull elk that all of the humans call, with a note of reverence, Louis. There’s also a community tractor that everyone refers to as Frank, but that’s a fairly trivial aside.
Also to the side, but more important, are the teachers, both professional and otherwise, who plan and fret and offer up what slices of wisdom they can in this tale. As “Martin Marten” deftly points out, sometimes the right comment at the right time – or a smile, or a hug – can make a life-changing difference. But more often it seems that it is an aggregate of thousands upon thousands of setbacks, encouragements, and guidance that shape one’s course through life.
And so this book has vast ambitions. Doyle wants you to notice everything. As his character Mr. Douglas advises, “See what’s… there, rather than just walking through it.”
Doyle wants you to consider the cycle of the seasons, from spring melt to snowfall. He wants you to ponder the permutations of the life cycle, from cradle to grave (or nest to predator’s belly). He wants you to reflect on the seasons of love.
Above all, he wants you to be curious and empathetic.
But rather than delivering this as a lecture, Doyle attempts to weave a spell of enchantment with his idiosyncratic characters and whimsical details. Sometimes the literary trappings do seem a mite precious, but take it slow and it won’t seem overwhelming.
Enjoy this ambitious experiment in telling some of the “scraps and shards of the uncountable stories on the mountain, of bird and beast, tree and thicket, fish and flea, biome and zygote.”