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That Old Time Race and Religion

Martin tells compelling story of Southern strength and change

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Charlottean and former Bank of America executive Joe Martin's new novel, Fire In The Rock, contains a laud on the back from professional blurb penner/writer Pat Conroy, but don't let that stop you. Conroy says the book has the smell of a classic. That said, he also stated that Doug Marlette's spotty The Bridge was "the finest first novel to come out of North Carolina since Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel." Where Conroy is right is in his assertion that Martin "knows everything about the South that Anne Rivers Siddons and Terry Kay and Rick Bragg know, yet he also knows those secret and subterranean things that Alice Walker and Dori Sanders have been telling us for years." Put another way, Martin shows a storytelling sensibility that digs beyond the stereotypical Southern facade, stripping his stories of sentimental dross without forsaking Spanish moss.

Fire in the Rock tells the story of two young men named Bo Fisher and Pollo Templeton, one white and the other black, coming of age in Eisenhower's America. They are freshly minted drivers with a pickup truck, long shady summer days, and a nubile cohort in the person of one Mae Maude Snoddy.

Darkness simmers under the surface of their Southern idyll, however, in the form of a ruthless racial climate, and Bo and Fisher soon come to worry less about adolescent taunts and eating crow than they do the specter of Jim Crow, which Pollo knows all too well (if rather apathetically) and Bo manages to soon translate by reading between the lines of his town's "aw shucks" doubletalk.

Bo is the son of a preacher, and he and Pollo are united in their relationship with Mae, who seems to like both boys equally. Together at church camp, somewhat removed from the outside world, they have nothing to do but get along, discussing their similarities with as much zeal as their differences. Martin is at his best here, skirting the fine line between holy water and deep water, showing the double-edged sword of Christianity as few writers dare in the South, let alone do well.

Ten years and a hundred pages later, both characters, now men, must use their lessons learned in confronting the burgeoning civil rights movement, Klan rallies, protest marches and Stokely Carmichael, a stew of history that manages to avoid becoming a 60s travelogue through the effective characterization established by Martin in the earlier 1950s narrative.

While writing this story, Martin began suffering from the debilitating effects of ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The disease has so ravaged his body that much of the book had to be written with something called Eyegaze software, which forced (or allowed, depending on your point of view) Martin to painstakingly write the book letter by letter, word by word. The result is a book refreshingly free of excess and plot contrivance.

In the introduction to the book No Hiding Place: Uncovering the Legacy of Charlotte-area Writers, Bob Inman noted that the collection featured a story by Martin, saying that it appeared that bankers do indeed control everything in this town. He was partially right. In the case of Martin, ALS might have taken the reins to his body, but he has full mortgage to his mind, heart and soul, and this town is all the better because of it.

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