On Reading the First Chapter of Max Turns Yellow: A Review
Martha King, Max Turns Yellow (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2021), $18
When I look back on my life as a reader, there are particular books I remember with pleasure because they drew me in as soon as I started them. Tom Sawyer was one, and Wuthering Heights—much to my surprise—was another; in fact, I read Wuthering Heights even while I was walking. I have a new book to add to that list now: Martha King’s Max Turns Yellow, which I finished in two sittings. I could
not, as they say, put it down.
What makes a book enjoyable? I think it starts with surprises, unexpected sentences that appear effortlessly, an easy read, which takes a lot of effort, of course; you can be sure Martha King has worked hard to carry us along. Max Turns Yellow is a murder mystery novel. In the earlier Max Sees Red there were many murders. There is only one murder in Max Turns Yellow, but there are many clues, and red herrings too.
I want to begin by examining, or trying to examine anyway—How do I explain what I enjoy?—what there is about Max Turns Yellow that draws me into the first chapter's first paragraph’s intimate casual comfortable sentences about a fellow named Theo who isn’t all that likable, but there he is:
So now we have Theo, thin, skinny, pale, a coward’s coward if he could ever be open enough with anyone to expose his cowardice. Not Theo Henneberg! He hides it very well. He’s the boy who reads a lot. He’s the boy who hates sports. In school he was the one who spoke only when he had to, only when he was called on, only when it was demanded.
Theo sometimes wonders if he’d be better off as a girl; he envies what is expected of women in contrast to what everyone seems to expect of men. He doesn’t think he’s sexually queer; men don’t turn him on. In fact, the three times he tried it, he found sex with men too damn rough. All that pinching and punching, the love bites, the massive bangs into his asshole or throat. He wants sex gentle. He wants to be a girl with another girl. To cuddle and stroke. To think and lick and slowly coax out the tingles.
There may be no better way of getting someone’s attention than by writing about sex, and there it is in the second paragraph, almost a non sequitur, a nitty gritty compelling comparison of how men and women have gay sex that makes perfect sense. Martha King must have done a lot of research because she tells it like it is. Inviting as any good gossip the sex draws me into the third paragraph and the introduction of a second character, James, who is both alive and dead depending on which sentence he is in:
Theo is going to find James, dead, in the sub-basement just below James’ study in the basement. James’ study is a room below street level in a Lower Eastside tenement building. It’s in the front and has a single six-inch high window, high on the wall, and so streaked with silt it barely admits any light at all. The room is thickly lined with books stacked in towers of orange plastic milk crates, floor to ceiling. The crates encircle his flat
plank desk. His little haven is reached down a short flight of steps, guarded on the sidewalk level by a low fence and an inward opening gate. Inside, the door to a subbasement below James’ workroom has no luck. It is usually latched. Theo will wonder why James left it unlatched. He’ll wonder what James was looking for.
James left the flossy French restaurant on the first floor of the tenement building next-door, large cloth napkin to his mouth smothering his wheezing. He left his dinner companions, Beth and Rose Ann. He fled for his sanctuary next door where he’d have the freedom to retch, wheeze, cough and gag without restraint. Boeuf bourguignon, who’d expect it? Was it gristle? It couldn’t be bone!
But no gag came
Virginia Woolf once complained that she had spent the whole day trying to write characters moving from one room to the next. I suspect that Martha King worked all day too on the third paragraph placing a window and a light switch, the shelves and the steps. When there are many details it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed, confused or bored, but here the mundane surroundings are like premonitions, clues that are of interest. And then what’s even more interesting, Beth and Rose Ann, the two final characters in the first chapter, come to life sitting in a Lower East Side French restaurant waiting for James to return. Like brief characters in a play by Shakespeare drawn for humor, Beth and Rose Ann begin to fret about having to pay the check as they ironically savor the delicious beef James has just now gagged on and choked to death.
Upstairs next door, Beth and Rose Ann went on sitting at the small table, mystified but not so alarmed that they didn’t continue eating. The beef was beautifully soft from its long simmer in red wine. A faint whiff of smoked bacon emerged, Beth noted. Little pearl onions floated in the dark gravy. When they’d finished and James had still not returned, they talked about how mercurial he could be. Had he left them without a word?
He was known for doing things like that.
“This is plenty annoying,” Beth looked fondly at her partner who shared her exasperation. James had invited them. They’d naturally expected him to pick up the check. A restaurant this expensive would not—with their carefully monitored budget—be their normal choice. They didn’t have to discuss their shared intention to skip a salad or coffee or dessert. Now with James still absent it was clearly time to split.
“I’ll put it on mine,” Rose Ann said fishing out her charge card. “We’ll figure itout later.”
“Fuck him,” Beth said. “Just fuck him.” Being disappointed by a man was such a damn cliché for both of them. Boring, boring, boring.
I really love the knowing sound of being disappointed by a man was such a damn cliché for both of them, and am charmed by it and never bored, although Beth and Rose Ann might be. After the first chapter, by the way, we won’t see Beth and Rose Ann again, and James is dead, but the unlikable Theo returns at the top of the steps where the unfortunate James has already fallen scattering his manuscript:
James was there on the dirt floor at the foot of the raw plank steps. He was there, dead, his face engorged and blackened. From suffocation or from the fall? Had the fall killed him? Did he have a crushed windpipe? A rib bone piercing his lung? Or was it simply that gob of food blocking his windpipe and stealing his breath forever?
Theo had first tapped his foot against the tiny basement window because he could make out that the light was on inside. Nothing. In the hallway the study door swung open at the first sharp knock. Was he expected? James had told him, “Come by after twelve.” James, he hoped, was going to give him advice about submitting his short stories. Or he was going to make a move? Theo didn’t know, but both possibilities were OK. He’d been one of James students in a short story workshop at the New School, and he was both flattered and suspicious of James’ indications of interest. A midnight
appointment wasn’t weird. Theo lived four blocks away and as he later had to explain tothe cops, he worked a night job doing the books for the Loisaida Theater on Rivington.
As soon as Theo entered he saw the sub-basement door hanging open. It was dark below. He found the wall switch at the top of the stair.
He looked for a long minute and then sat where he was, on the top step. James’head was cocked at a lethal angle in his face was slack and gray as stone. All around the dead man was a snowstorm of manuscript papers. Had James pulled at something from above as he fell? There were storage shelves lining the walls above the stairway. Theo reached down and picked up a page. Then he did what he always did when he was frightened. He began to read.
Leaving Theo on the steps, I’d like to change the subject, and mention another book by Martha King, Outside/Inside, a memoir about Black Mountain College, San Francisco, and Manhattan where she moved in 1959 with her life-time husband, the artist, Basil King. New York City is where she stops and stays, and makes many new acquaintances, among them Frank O’Hara, of whom she says, among other things:
He was gaga for beauty, but not for dreamboats with empty heads. He might whine about his own life, but then he’d prod Baz to make intelligent calculations to protect his work and himself. I realized that meant he did so for himself too. What might seem like abandon, his willingness to give sway to his enthusiasms was actually monitored. Frank wasn’t self-destructive; he was ambitious in the best way. With no sentiment whatsoever he arranged for people to meet simply in pursuit of what might happen. He liked to see things happen. When Frank talked he drove right to the center,
where the energy was. He was funny about art-world hangers on too; they were as acceptable as seaweed to him, while Baz was often driven into rages over faddish or uncommitted behavior.
When I read the simile they were as acceptable as seaweed to him, the words say more to me than they actually say; it’s as if the whole vast deep ocean of New York City was open to Frank O’Hara who didn’t mind even the seaweed that clung to him. Frank O’Hara was open and ready for everything is what the insightful prose says. Outside/Inside is exciting and enlightening with famous people and places I’ve always wanted to know more about, a time in which I was just a little too young to live. I will say here that I’ve enjoyed Outside/Inside and Max Turns Yellow equally and I recommend them both because, for me anyway, it is a pleasure to read Martha King who is more interesting to read here than I am—though I’m trying my best—so I would like to end with a little more of Max Turns Yellow that comes near the end when Theo has an argument with his father,
a mysterious character who has appeared pretty much out of nowhere in the book:
Theo gave his father a stony appraisal. “If every word you’ve said is totally true,” he said, “I still don’t give a shit. I’m looking for a way to nail the people who killed my sister. That’s all I want. All the stuff from you is just words.” “Words are your life blood, Theo. Don’t speak lightly of words. Good Lord, you’ve become a writer, a keeper of words, a sender of words, a bender of words. You swim in the ocean of them and now they seep through you as if you had grown gills.”
The mystery of Max Turns Yellow may not be about a murder, but whether or not Theo plagiarized James’ manuscript and made a best-seller out of it. What Theo’s father says about Theo above answers the question, I think, and could be said about any metamorphic writer who makes us want to turn the page to know what’s going to happen next. It’s always a mystery, isn’t it? How the reader who opens a good book is not the reader who closes it. With a happy regret I finished Max Turns Yellow knowing what I enjoyed was over, or was it? The memories persist looking forward to the next Max to be read, a present for the present then; now remembering, this pleasant longing the writer’s gift.