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Book Review: Martin Moran's
The Tricky Part

By Alan Gomberg

Also see George Reddick's review of
Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre: Expanded Edition

Last spring, actor Martin Moran (Floyd Collins, Titanic, Bells Are Ringing) won an Obie for his autobiographical solo show The Tricky Part. The story he told in the show he now tells in considerably more detail in book form, again under the title The Tricky Part (Beacon Press; List Price $23.95). (The stage script is also available, through Dramatists Play Service.)

In 1972, when he was 12, Moran was living a happy, devoutly Catholic childhood in a Denver suburb. Young Martin was at the top of his class in the school of Christ the King church. Asked to cover the phone one afternoon when the office nun got ill, he got a kick out of answering calls with "Hello, Christ the King."

Martin was a little confused about why he longed to sit next to the neighbor boy who sometimes babysat for him, and most mornings, for unknown reasons, he awoke feeling sick to his stomach, but everything else seemed to be going well. Until Bob came into his life.

Bob, in his early 30s, was a former counselor at a camp run by the Denver archdiocese, which Martin had attended. Now Bob was planning to start a boys' camp of his own on a ranch in the Rockies. Martin was invited by a friend to go on a weekend trip to Bob's ranch, where they were to help him set up the new camp. A weekend on a ranch sounded exciting to Martin. Martin's parents didn't know much about Bob, but they must have thought that anyone who had been worked at a camp run by the Denver archdiocese could be trusted.

That first night at the ranch, after Martin's friend fell asleep, Bob drew Martin into a sexual relationship that would last for three years. The emotional fallout lasted far longer.

The book is in two parts of approximately equal length. Most of the first part concerns the relationship with Bob, while the second part recounts the ups and downs of Martin's recovery from the aftereffects of the relationship.

Moran's stage version ran approximately 80 minutes, focusing on the beginning of the story and the end. Such is the strength of Moran's writing that the book, at 300 pages, is perhaps even more compelling than the show.

Despite all the power, humor, and eloquence of Moran's stage presentation, I had some problems with it. Not only was I uncertain whether it could be described as a play, I wasn't sure if it could even be described as theatre. It seemed so personally confessional, like a conversation that you might have with a very close friend who trusts you completely. When someone stands onstage and tells 150 people the most intimate details of his own life - is this theatre?

I had seen other autobiographical, one-person shows recounting personal matters of comparable - or nearly comparable - intimacy, but for some reason the question of whether such a piece could be called theatre had not previously bothered me much. Why did it bother me this time? Was it because an autobiographical show about a sexual relationship between a 12-year-old and an adult was too unsettling? I wasn't sure.

For whatever reason, the book does not bother me in the way that the stage version did. Reading it gives you the sense of being alone with Moran, that he is telling his story just to you. Not being able to see him is an asset, giving you the distance that you need. In addition, the great amount of extra information strengthens and deepens the story and adds complexity.

When Moran writes of the first time young Martin and Bob have sexual contact, you feel Martin's confusion and fear but also his excitement and his desire for this contact (though he hadn't anticipated it or wished for it), and how it makes him feel part of the adult world.

Moran makes us understand the conflicting emotions that Martin has after his sexual encounters with Bob - his alternating impulses to blame himself and then Bob for this act that involves so many things that he has been told are sins. We understand why Martin keeps coming back for more, even as the relationship becomes creepier still when Bob becomes engaged to be married.

Bob is not portrayed as just an evil child molester, though Moran also never lets him off the hook, memorably painting a portrait of a man whose own confusions do not excuse the great harm he wreaks on others.

After the relationship with Bob is over, Martin leaves the all-boy Jesuit high school he was by then attending and enters public school for the first time. Cast as Hero in the high school production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum he rediscovers joy: "[E]ven in all the irreverence, in all the courtesans chasing Pseudolus, in all the raunchy jokes, ... there was something sacred. A celebration of what's human and what's here. I stood there, an essentially ex-Catholic, uncovering a new faith." Eventually, Martin realizes that he is gay and comes to terms with this, but he also finds himself compelled to have anonymous sexual encounters that leave him troubled.

There appears to be a certain amount of artistic license in the book, as Moran recreates conversations that happened 30 years ago. This is probably one of the reasons why The Tricky Part often feels more like fiction than a memoir, especially in the first part. The artistry of Moran's prose may also be a contributing factor.

He does not quite manage to consistently sustain the exceptional quality of his best writing. In the second part, he sometimes tries to cover too much too quickly, and the book starts to feel a little glib and reminiscent of self-help literature.

It also doesn't help that, with many vividly described characters in the book, one very important character in the second part never becomes very compelling: Moran's partner, Henry. We only see Henry's best attributes, which may be why he doesn't seem as interesting as many of the other people Moran brings to life.

Still, even if the second half has some disappointing sections, the good portions more than make up for them. For the most part, the writing is so skillful and Moran's story so moving that the book is likely to strike a deep chord in many readers. I do feel, as I did when I saw the stage version, that there was something questionable about Moran having tape recorded his final conversation with Bob and then passing it on to us. Is this perhaps his way of getting even with Bob? I wish Moran had addressed this.

Admitting that there are places where Moran, having taken us so far in so much of the book, doesn't take us as far as he perhaps could have, The Tricky Part is not only a powerful and fascinating read, it is an enriching one. In Moran's telling of this story, there are no easy answers. Out of his own experiences, he has fashioned a deeply resonant work of art.

The Tricky Part : One Boy's Fall from Trespass into Grace
Martin Moran
Paperback. 288 pages
Beacon Press
Publishing date: June 2005
ISBN: # 0807072621

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