Meet Alby. He’s twitchy, aggressive, and improbably eloquent. He likes boats and small animals, and that’s about it. Well, he also likes sex, though I won’t go so far as to say he likes the girls he has it with. A native of the hardscrabble part of Long Island around the Great South Bay, he drinks too much, works crappy jobs, squabbles with his wreck of a family, and responds to most stimuli with violence. He often feels overstimulated.
Matt Sumell’s Making Nice pulls few punches. Indeed, it opens with a story called “Punching Jackie,” which is about “why it was OK for me to punch my sister in the tits.” Here’s one reason: “There is a certain clarity in violence. There’s nothing rhetorical or vague about it—it means only what it means, which if I had to I would translate as roughly: ‘I don’t like you right now, a lot.’ Less roughly translated of course depends on the particulars. . . . However you translate it, though, it isn’t really all that cruel or enduring. In my experience physical suffering is more transitory than emotional suffering. Words, on the other hand, do lasting damage. There’s no taking them back. Not really.” Here’s another: “Sibling status overpowers lady status. Siblings don’t count as ladies.”
As a character, and frankly, as a protagonist, Alby doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. His one great asset is his creator’s perfectly pitched and grandly careening prose, which the above passage barely scratches the surface of, so here’s another:
In November my father’s mother died, and in December he got himself drunk and tried to sleep in a tree. He fell out. You know what they say about apples. I was fourteen. Then it was winter. . . . We didn’t get powder, we got ice. Branches bent. Things broke. Roads were plowed and salted but to no use and I loved that like I love a good hurricane, floods and tornadoes, the bull goring the bullfighter. I think it’s a good thing when the natural world swells up and knocks against us, interrupts our plans, humbles our false jurisdictions—and in its wake the solidarity of shared suffering.
That’s Alby at some of his antic best—running wind sprints up and down emotional as well as rhetorical registers—but Making Nice is no less laudable for what it works in on the sly. The side effects of Ritalin are described as “anxiety, irritability, and patriotism.” A girl who falls out of a moving car has a face “like someone had just scribbled on it with a rock, or scribbled on a rock with her.” Alby’s heart “starts chewing tinfoil” when he thinks of his dead mother. At another moment, rearrested by the same pain: “I felt thirsty for sand.”
The key thing to know about Alby is that he takes about as much damage as he inflicts. It’s hardly a coincidence that the word suffering appears in both passages quoted above. His mother on her deathbed has heart-to-hearts with his siblings, but tries to get out of talking to him. When he cries and tells her he loves her, she responds, “That it?” After her death, his father—a one-legged alcoholic and veteran bruiser himself—begins to lose his mind. The Long Island roads are strewn with roadkill: the corpses of innocent rabbits. Hyper-territorial mute swans peck other water birds to death, and will even try to drown swimmers who fall out of boats. It’s no place to be from and come out right.
Alby’s narratives are hectic and associative, jumping around in time and calling back to each other, but free of the burden to cohere into anything novel-shaped. I for one appreciate the elasticity, though I sometimes wished Sumell didn’t repeat himself quite so much. Alby is mean to a person. Alby is tender to an animal. Alby has sex, angstily. Lather, rinse, repeat. But it’s worth noting here that grief is repetition (Freud compared mourning to being haunted) and come to think of it, so are anger and love—to say nothing of family, where inescapability is the whole point.
With twenty stories crammed into 220 pages, there are bound to be some greatest hits and misses. The stories that didn’t work for me tended to be either forgettable bursts of flash fiction (“Bugs,” “Making Nice”) or conceit-driven goofs. “Super Markets” is a snoozer about trying out different supermarkets. In “Testy,” either Alby or Sumell goes meta, and the book’s own signature motifs are reimagined as a series of multiple-choice word problems. It reads like a parody of Mallory Ortberg’s “Male Novelist Jokes” routine, as performed by one of her own caricatures.
The good news is there isn’t much of this stuff to fret over. Even the weakest stories have their pleasures—like a good solo in a middling song—and the best will choke you on your own laughter and sucker punch you in the heart, which is of course to say “in the tits.” “Little Things,” “The Block, Twice,” “Everything Is a Big Deal,” “I’m Your Man,” “Inheritance,” and “The Cold Way Home” are all fantastic. But my two favorites, “All Lateral” and “OK,” both force Alby out of his regular patterns, and Sumell out of his. In “All Lateral”, Alby relocates from Long Island, first to a houseboat in Los Angeles harbor, then to northern California for a job gutting a house. In “OK,” another boat story, he’s back in Long Island, spending some truly deranged quality time with his father. “OK” is the longest piece in the book and to my eye the crown jewel of the collection. It is also a tantalizing preview of what Sumell can do when he really revs his outboard motor, and sets the course for unfamiliar shores, “smirking toward death like whatever. Like pass the salt.”