Anger, Understanding, a Confession: Making Nice by Matt Sumell
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Matt Sumell’s debut collection of stories opens with a man in a rage. Alby, the narrator of “Punching Jackie,” has just been called a loser by his older sister and in response Alby struggles to control his temper, a temper he describes as “a rogue wave of weapons.” Later in the story, Alby flashes back to the moment when his dying mother called him to her hospital bedside — he is the last of his siblings to receive such an invitation — and instead of saying goodbye to her son, she dredges up the memory of Alby throwing a book at her head. Then she says to him, “I don’t want you to ever, ever, be abusive with a woman again. You can’t abuse women, Alby. I need you to promise me that.” One would assume that Alby’s violent tendencies, which are chronicled in great detail throughout the collection, trace back to the pain of watching his mother die, but we will come to learn that perhaps they come from a deeper, more irreconcilable place. Alby confesses in another story, “It feels good to be punched in the face, to punch someone in the face.”
Making Nice is less a collection of stories and more the episodic, first person confession of a man named Alby. Co-starring in this confession are the members of Alby’s family: brother made-good AJ; lesbian sister Jackie; a father with a prosthetic leg who utters such wisdom as, “Only pussies drink water;” a dog named Sparkles; most importantly, a dying and then dead mother, as well as a similarly doomed grandmother. Sumell mines the same darkly comic vein of wounded masculinity that Frederick Exley so memorably excavated in his three novels, most notably in A Fan’s Notes. More recently, Matthew Klam’s collection Sam the Cat picks at similar scabs, the scabs that have formed over the wounded pride of men. A more revealing influence is Nathanael West, inevitably used as a crossword clue in the story, “Rest Stop.” Like the title character in Miss Lonelyhearts, Alby often finds himself in bar fights, and like Miss Lonelyhearts, Alby also suffers from a persecution complex. In the end, Miss Lonelyhearts undergoes a conversion experience, but the price he pays is his life. Alby, on the other hand, does not experience a moment of enlightenment; instead, he is allowed to live. The reader is left to wonder whether that is a blessing or a curse.
Coupled with Alby’s rage is the urge to help, and to eventually heal. In the story “Little Things,” Alby says, “I folded my arms. They felt big, capable of anything. Lifting, digging, feeding cows PCP so they revolt with unexpected and tremendous violence — anything.” But later in the same paragraph, Alby also tells us that his arms, his strength, can also be useful for “pushing my Mexican neighbor’s broke-down car across the street Thursday mornings to avoid street sweeping tickets and tossing my cell phone to a friend who needs to make an important call to his mom.”
Often in this collection, Alby’s need to help, his need to heal, extends to the animals. In “Rape in the Animal Kingdom,” Alby nurses a sick bird named Gary because, as Alby says to his father, “he’s helpless and he needs me, and I got a thing in my heart for helpless things that need me, OK?” Of course, Alby isn’t nursing Gary so that he’ll one day fly free; as Alby himself says, he is nursing Gary so that Gary can eventually “terrorize all of Suffolk County, hunting mammals and butt-fucking seagulls.” Later in the story, Alby forces Gary to watch YouTube videos of eagles killing goats and a dolphin raping an unsuspecting snorkeler. However, Alby seems incapable of helping himself. In the story “Super Markets” Alby is mistaken for a woman, and though he protests (“I’m a male, you can tell just by looking, I’ve got sideburns”), there is recognition throughout the collection that women are better equipped to deal with tragedy because they allowed to publicly express their feelings in ways more complex than a punch. It is as if Alby blames his inability to process his mother’s death on the sheer fact of his masculinity.
The stories in Making Nice essentially move chronologically through Alby’s life — from his mother’s death, to his delinquent adolescence in suburban Long Island to Alby’s man-child existence in California, and then back to his mother’s grave as an adult. There is an undeniable freshness to Alby’s voice, not to mention a string of memorable opening sentences (“Consider the look on Whatsherface’s face when I bought her a well drink and told her I lived on a boat”), but by the middle of the collection, the voice, like the world of the stories, begin to feel claustrophobic. One story is titled “All Lateral,” and that is exactly what it’s like to read this collection: we move laterally through Alby’s mess of a life, and because of the narrator’s limited point of view, we are never give the chance to see him, much less any of the other characters, from a different direction. Alby’s understanding of himself does deepen as the collection progresses, but this understanding is limited to simply asking the right question: “Maybe math could help me understand why — after suffering for so long — I don’t get better at suffering. But I don’t. Every time, I don’t.”
“OK,” the penultimate story in the collection, provides as much closure as the reader, and Alby, are allowed. In this story, Alby travels to Ohio to meet his new niece, whom he calls “Fatlegs,” and after he hears from his brother AJ about how bad of shape his father is in, Alby flies back to Long Island. Alby finds his father’s house flea-infested, and his cat Steve on the verge of death. Alby saves Steve, another of Alby’s animal rescues, but he decides that his father is beyond saving. Later, Alby’s father takes him on a boat ride — the smell of the engine exhaust reminding Alby of “the summer days when I was six- or seventeen and he was fifty-something and we were both happier people — and out on the South Bay we finally learn Alby’s secret. However, this secret does not provide the answer to the question the entire collection has been asking: why is Alby so angry? The real answer comes when Alby visits his mother’s grave: “I don’t know how you broads live like this, it’s hard to get things done when you’re thoughtful and having feelings all the time.”
[Editor’s note: read “Punching Jackie” from Making Nice in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading]
by Matt Sumell