Shia LaBeouf on “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.
by Courtney Maum
Editor’s note: Any resemblances to actual celebrities — alive or dead — are miraculously coincidental. Celebrity voices channeled by Courtney Maum.
People say I’m a troublemaker, but I prefer to think I have a keener sense of my mortality than most. My parents were freelance clowns when I was growing up in Los Angeles, so you know. What the fuck.
The tabloids say I’m reigning in my restless ways, searching for better parts. The tabloids also say I’m cobbling together a set of stolen selves: the party boy bit I’ve taken from DiCaprio; the existential art guy my attempt to out Franco Franco; the bad boy thing is Madonna-era Sean Penn.
What no one realizes is that I’m just trying to be myself. But in this metamodernist world where even sincerity is winky, it’s hard to know what being myself even means. I get caught for drunk driving, I finger other people’s girlfriends, I smoke cigarettes and yell obscenities during other people’s plays. I am fucking HUMAN. But no one wants to give me any after school special credit for that.
It can be a pretty lonely place out there for a bad guy with a good heart, but I’m feeling just a modicum of better since reading Matt Sumell’s “Making Nice.” This book’s a set of thirteen interconnected short stories about a carwreck of a man named Alby who’s trying to navigate the world as an anchorless thirty one year old in the wake of his mother’s death from cancer.
As you can insinuate from the book’s title, (because we’re all ironic now), Alby’s not a nice guy. He’s terrible to young women, old women, and young children alike. The only species that escapes his constant wrath are animals, whom he seemingly takes in to offset his indelible rage. In the story, “If P, Then Q”, Alby rescues what “looked like a dog’s heart with a bird’s head stuck on, a blob with a beak” that he thinks is a falcon and trains accordingly as such, assuring his feeble pupil that he “only need to worry about three things: how to fly, how to hunt, and how to fuck.” A package arrives from falcongloves.com and Alby takes his training sessions to backyard where he and his derelict father watch the poor thing “hop around the grass like a toad between us.” It turns out that the falcon was actually a sparrow, and it also turns out that Alby’s dad, in a drunken stupor, squashed the bird erroneously underfoot and tried to cover it up by offering to look for it once he declared it missing. They do so, pops and little Alby, “scouring the ground and the shrubs and the trees around the house, calling out for him. Whistling, like we were happy.”
Well, hey, you know what? That’s really fucking sad. It really fucking got to me to hear words about another guy who has problems with his dad. My dad — and this is well documented, I’m not just talking trash — is a messed up Vietnam vet, drug dealing Mephistopheles of a father, but he’s still my dad. There are scenes in this book where it’s so clear that Alby’s father is behind every insecurity that Alby has developed, and then there are other scenes where the two of them are throttling through their native waters of Long Island in “a sixteen-foot, gel-coatless and oxidized blue MFG covered in pine needles”, the sunshine upping everything great about the water and Alby’s father leaning in towards the steering wheel to holler “Where we goin’?” and his impossibly happy son belting back, “Who cares!”
We hurt the ones we love the most, that’s for fucking sure. That is, for example, the reason I totalled Alec Baldwin and got myself fired from that stupid Broadway play. It’s also the reason I can’t hold down a relationship to save my freaking life. People say Macaulay Culkin went nutso when Mila Kunis left him, but Macaulay Calkin went nutso because he couldn’t make Mila stay.
Alby doesn’t have much luck in the love department, either. He uses nicknames for the fairer species that are fresh-off-the-playground-clever, (“Hi, high jeans!” for starters,) but his pick up lines don’t work because unlike Alby’s conscience, the women he’s going after aren’t three years old.
This might not be the place to share this, but then I’ve never been one for geographical decorum: I had a sushi date with Hillary Duff once where she requested that all of the grains in her maki rolls be replaced with brown rice. (“Hi, high maintenance!”, Alby, amirite?) I gave myself a compensational handjob afterwards for not punching her in the face.
Anyhowdle. The author behind this “Making Nice” book seems pretty shrewd, and his headshot gives the impression that he’s moderately attractive, and because I don’t like competition, after coming to these two conclusions I read everything negative people had to say about his work online. A lot of reviewers are calling Sumell’s humor “savage.” “Ferocious” is another one, “heartbreaking” comes up a lot. One Amazon reviewer who calls herself “The Manic Reader” said her sensibilities were offended. Someone else said she really liked “Confederacy of Dunces” but that this book was more like “Dunces with Wolves.” I felt kind of defensive of my brother Sumell when I read that one. It’s like, get some organizational control over your mixed metaphors, you nut!
Let me tell you what’s going on under Alby’s savagery, under all that posturing, the car accidents, the violence and the getting beaten up. Alby’s got a tender heart under his bruised skin. The man can’t even watch jewelry commercials without getting emotional, you know? He spends his time pestling cat food up with applesauce, TUMS tablets, hard-boiled eggs and water to feed his dying bird. He continually tries to seduce women by complimenting their outfits and he’s got nothing — not one bullet point of a game plan — after that.
This is the story of a man who is absolutely and positively in the world without a plan, or rather someone who is tetherless because his mother’s death set his plan on fire. The world is an intolerably cruel place if you allow yourself to love someone, and I’m sorry to say that my time so far upon it has shown that you don’t always get back what you give.