Martone, as Peter Turchi has said, looks “under stones the rest of us leave unturned.” So, what is he really up to when he dwells on the make of Malcolm X’s eyeglasses or the runner-up names for Snow White’s seven dwarfs? In “My Mother Invents a Tradition,” Martone tells how his mom, as the dean of girls at a brand-new high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, “constructed a nostalgic past out of nothing.” Sitting at their dining room table, she came up with everything from the school colors (orange and brown) to the yearbook title (Bear Tracks). Look, and then look again, Martone is saying. “You never know. I never know.”
Martone’s approach has always been to synthesize, to understand and use any technique, formula, or style available. “I find myself, then,” he writes, “self-identifying as a formalist, both and neither an experimenter and/or a traditionalist.” In “I Love a Parade: An Afterword,” Martone writes about not fitting in--and loving it--as he recalls the time he marched alone in a local Labor Day parade, as a one-person delegation from the National Writers Union. Elsewhere, in writings formally, stylistically, purposely at odds with themselves, Martone’s expansive curiosity is on full display. We learn about camouflage techniques, how a baby acquires language, how to “read” a WPA-era post office mural, and why Martone sold his stock in the New Yorker and reinvested his money in the company that makes Etch A Sketch®.
Unconventions, then, is Martone’s “Frankensteinian monster,” a kind of unruly, hybrid spawn of the mainstream writing enterprise. “Writing seems to me an intrinsic pleasure, an end in itself first,” says Martone. “The question for me is not whether my writing, or any piece of writing, is good or bad but what the writing is and what it is doing and how finally it is used or can be used by others.”