The Least You Need to Know is Lee Martins first book, and a strange and familiar one it is. There must be a thousand stories . . . about the relations of fathers and sons: the hokiest of themes, covered since Telemachus went in search of Odysseus. . . . Martins real, and promising, gift is to turn this cliche back into the urgent, intensely personal myth of growth it really is, and always has been.
Martins stories are solidly crafted, imaginative, and stoically compassionate.
Martin succeeds with his own portraits, with his own skill for precise and intricate detail. . . . the most exciting moments in Martins writing come not from the dramatic tension, but from the swift, tender details that give these characters their humanity and make them more than just figures of tragedy. . . . Despite the characters failings, Martin does not judge or condemn them; instead he handles his characters as the undertaker in Light Opera handles his mourners: Eyes straight ahead, the undertaker advises his son, Dont embarrass them. Dont let them know how precious they are in their grief.
Lee Martin explores loss of innocence and the harsh truths of growing up and growing old. His characters are funny, tragic, often weak and heartbreakingly human. . . . Martins gentle prose style and his ability to turn his plot on a dime, combined with a sense of humor and an appreciation for the tragedy of being human, make The Least You Need to Know worthy of high praise and re-reading.
The Least You Need to Know . . . demonstrates the authors considerable mastery at rendering with recognizable accuracy small town, middle-class, mid-western America and the people who inhabit it. . . . what these stories share is characters who seem so real that what happens to them matters to us. And Martin writes in a prose so fluid that what we read has the ring of a real voice simply speaking to us.
Arkansas Democrat Gazette
"When I was a boy," opens the title story in this accomplished debut collection, "my father cleaned up crime scenes. Murders, suicides." This is the starting point for many of these narratives: a teenage 1960s protagonist whose father is in the business of death and whose mother is a bit dreamy and dissatisfied. In "Light Opera," Perry Sievers, an undertaker's child struggling to find a balance between his father's detachment and his own hot rebelliousness, is drawn into a beautiful and frightening act of petit larceny. The father in "The End of Sorry" is a strikebreaker at an abattoir, who unsuccessfully fights his wife's involvement with another man. There are exceptions to the pattern, notably "The Price Is the Price," in which a Jewish father tries to come to terms with his estranged son, a pro wrestler. The most resonant story in the book is "The Welcome Table," in which the Thibodeaux family, caught up in a cemetery scandal, flees to Tennessee seeking anonymity. Instead, father and son start training lunch-counter protesters by allowing them to practice nonviolent responses to verbal abuse, and the family gets caught up in a racial incident that threatens to divide them. Throughout the book, Martin's writing is sensitive and lucid, only occasionally veering into the florid. The characters he writes about are utterly real, if somewhat uniform (the fathers are tough and mysterious, the mothers have quirky hobbies like eggshell painting). But their concerns and joys are perfectly identifiable and voiced with passion. (June)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A fine debut of seven stories, winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fictionall, save one, previously published in literary magazines. Together, the pieces make for a hauntingly coherent first collection, often about pitiful family scenarios in which loyalties are tested, lies offered and exposed, and in which ironies abound.
A number of Martin's dull and witless men (as seen by their teenage sons/narrators) work in death-related jobs, which often cut their families off from normal lives. In the title story, a son witnesses the mental disintegration of his father, who works cleaning up crime scene fatalities. It's a job that satisfies his increasingly bizarre rage for order, an expression of the same obsessive neatness that drives his wife to distraction. "Light Opera" concerns the son of an undertaker who begins to see the appeal of his father's strange life as a constant mourner and affirms it by lying on his father's behalf. A cemetery manager leaves New Hampshire in scandal ("The Welcome Table") and assumes a new identity with his family in Tennessee, where he forces his son into early civil rights involvement, which the son rejects. Indeed, the sins of the parents often bear upon the children in these tales of justice and revenge. A father's job as a scab worker at the local meat-packing plant destroys his son's happy life in "The End of Sorry." In the long "The Price Is the Price," a Jewish merchant in goyish Evansville, Illinois, tries to win back his assimilated son by developing an inexpensive housing project for black people, but the father's business drive gets the better of him. In two short bits, old people join together out of fear ("Small Facts") and contemplate "sin and offense" ("Secrets").
Bleak midwestern landscapes well serve many of these stark and solid narratives.