The lottery of birthright weighs heavily on novelist Eric Martin’s mind in ‘Luck’

February 1, 2013

If one were tempted to reduce Eric Martin’s 2000 novel Luck to its simplest elements, it could be described as a tale of rich boy meets and falls in love with poor girl.

But Martin isn’t about simplicity. Instead, this is a writer who loves to dive into details and nuance. He’s also a writer whose ability to put a reader into the heat of moment derives in part from his flair for exploring the varied historic and personal factors that have led to the moment.

So Luck is the story of Michael Olive, the intelligent and tightly wound scion of a successful farmer in a small Eastern North Carolina town, and Hermelinda Salmeron, the intelligent, ambitious and beautiful daughter of a Mexican migrant worker employed by the Olive family and living on their land.

But it’s also much, much more. It’s the story of the rivalry between Mike Olive and Harvey Dickerson, a lifelong schoolmate and onetime friend turned bitter rival. It’s the story of the tension between the white farmers in the rural community and the poor and often poorly educated Hispanics who do much of the hard labor of producing and harvesting crops.

It’s the story of the tension between small-town Cottesville and the outsiders Olive brings into their midst one summer, fellow Duke University students who show an unseemly interest in the migrants. And it’s also the story of the tension between Olive, his family and the community that raised him. 

The book begins as the tensions in the fictitious town of Cottesville have boiled over. An act of vandalism and an act of terrorism intersect unexpectedly, killing one man and seriously injuring another.

But while a pot of water boiling can be dramatic, that’s not always so with the mundane acts that lead to that point. After the short opening chapter, the story goes back in time, exploring Salmeron’s childhood and adolescence and only gradually returning the reader to Cottesville and that eventful summer.

Martin never rushes things, even with his protagonists, whose improbable love affair is seen for what it is by both participants.

“If you were not a coward you would come and tell me [you loved me] right away.”

“Would you have kissed me?”

“Of course not. I’m not going to kiss you now.”

“Yes you are.” He leaned in and took the back of her head with one hand cupped behind and beneath her ear, and he kissed her.

She pushed him away lightly, but not right away, and they looked at each other while the rooster hissed beside them and she thought: Maybe. She wasn’t sure but she suspected that they would have to kiss again, soon.

“I don’t trust you,” she said. She stooped to eye level with the rooster in his cage. The rooster made a low growling sound but did not move.

“I’m sorry,” he said, too loud, and she hushed him. He whispered, “I’m crazy about you.” He was waiting but she would not get up.

“Now you go home,” she said. The rooster was looking at her, head tilted slightly, as if trying to understand her better. She didn’t look up until she heard the engine whir and fade into the night.

They kissed again on Sunday, when he came to watch the cockfight and bet ten dollars on the loser. Everyone seemed very happy with his loss. The fight was over quickly and it was obvious Mike did not know quite what had happened. He seemed overwhelmed by the excitement and feathers in the air, the hours of buildup and drinking and talk with the men who tested him, probed him, tried to get him drunk, teased him. He survived it fine. She wondered if Mike realized, perhaps the last one in the camp to realize, that he was courting her, officially and publicly, that he was being sized up, that there were those who thought he was a rich patrón looking for some fun with a Mexican girl and others, only a few, who took him seriously, more seriously than he could know. The older men snickered at him; [Hermelinda’s brother] Alejandro watched him carefully; her father plied him with drinks and food, gave him impassioned and confusing advice about betting on birds.

Just before he left she followed him behind a trailer and kissed him again, slowly, for a long time, putting her hands on his firm warm body beneath his light cotton shirt. There was no reason why more than at the end of that day, at that moment, she wanted to.

The lovers are sensitive to the lottery of life. Mike’s father was an ordinary working farmer until a childless land-owner, for reasons no one ever determined, willed his estate to the Olives. That generous gift, imparted when Mike was young, helped drive a permanent wedge between Mike and Harvey Dickerson, whose family is less well off.

And Hermelinda Salmeron seems painfully aware that her potential is limited because of her birth. Having been born in Mexico, to a poor family, her opportunity to get to college is almost nil. Olive is surprised to discover that Salmeron has never driven a car, which nearly every non-urban American learns to do before graduating from high school. (Martin doesn’t specify the ages of his protagonists, but I took Olive to be around 20 and Hermelinda to be about 19.)

Martin also alludes to but does not delve into the issue of Jackson County’s black population, whose birthright is perhaps more complicated than that of the migrant laborers. As one character thinks to himself:

Black and white were different and they always would be but they also had time on their side, a history and a shared time of year after year for a hundred years and more, and in that much time no matter what you say about your fellowman you are going to come to some kind of understanding. Black and white had a past, but Mexicans?

A few questions hang over this story, including whether and how the lovers at its heart can bridge the many differences between them. Another is exactly what Olive and his compatriots are doing in the fictitious Jackson County. (North Carolina does have a county by that name, but it’s in the mountainous western part of the state and seems to me to be wholly unlike the place Martin depicts.) The residents are suspicious of the outsiders, even though Olive carefully explains their mission in bland terms.

At last, a story that began languidly (despite the fatal act at the start) begins hurtling quickly, but without melodrama, toward its resolution. While it would be stretching to say that Luck is wrapped up neatly, it does come to a conclusion I found satisfying, even if the short final chapter is rather cryptic.

It’s a sign of Martin’s willingness to reach beyond facile narratives that late in the book, two of his antagonists arrive at a brief, mysterious and wholly unexpected rapprochement. The moment, witnessed by many, is later chewed over by town folk as they try to assess the very events that the readers too are parsing:

There’s a point about the worker barracks. Bad. Live there what do you expect? 

Good about getting the kids in school. 

Can’t argue with a health clinic. 

Way it explained to me, sounded like common sense. 

Went about everything all wrong. 

Learn some English. 

Learn some Spanish. 

Wanted to sue somebody, can you believe it? 

He put out that hand, he know they done wrong. 

Has some good points. 

Not going to get any easier. Any better for us, we all stick together. 

Was something bad going on out there, what I hear.

In Luck, Martin sensitively portrays two very different cultures — three, actually, if the privileged mindset of the Mike Olive and his fellow Duke students is counted. His novel affords a fascinating look at how they intersect over the course of one ultimately tumultuous summer. Rich rewards await the reader with the time and patience to devote to Luck.

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