Making Nice
Matt Sumell
(Henry Holt)
As an author, Sumell apparently at times likes writing about dorks. In the very first chapter of Making Nice, we find Alby fighting with his sister.

"When she came at me a third time I threw one medium-powered punch at the middle of her chest that kinda skimmed over the right tit and landed solidly on the left, sending her backward over the dishwasher door." The long lead-up to the final blow indicates that our 'hero' is rather pleased with his temper and his inability to show even a modicum of restraint . . . fond of his willingness to use force instead of reason (or love).

He seems to get off just thinking about being a dolt. He sees an invitation to a "Mormon open house" and he muses that he should drop over and

    give a lecture on evolution . . . accuse them of mental imperialism, and kill everyone there. I would punch noses and poke eyes-out and smash teeth out of skulls. I would walk on tables and jump off and kick heads.

When his mother is dying of cancer, and her body refuses to give up, she asks him to bring her a bottle of Ritalin, "The whole bottle."

    I didn't say anything, not because I was paralyzed but because I was genuinely considering it.

To conjoin this round of matricide with an interlude of parricide, Alby goes out in a boat on the Connetquot River with the old man. Alby contemplates his father's pain, his wooden leg, his seventy-two years and his "self-pitying way." Pa continually tells his son that he should would rather be dead. As he turns towards the starboard to piss, Alby shoves him overboard, then starts the motor.

    At thirty yards he was already difficult to see, at forty almost invisible, just a head and an occasional arm. At first I thought he was waving, and without thinking I waved back, just once, my hand up high like See ya. Take it easy. Like Nice knowing you.

The surprise here is not that Alby throws the old man overboard and takes off. No, its that he ultimately turns around and comes back and saves him.

The only creature in the known world that he seems to care for is his dog, Jason. One evening he loses him in the woods. There are rumors of dogs being eaten by mountain lions. Alby is convinced that his buddy will never return, that he has been dinner for one. But then, when he gets home,

    In my ears a white noise like radio static tuned real low. My heart a pond in a hailstorm, concentric circles of cold radiating out. I thought my chest might implode. I felt thirsty of sand. But that doesn't do it --- I don't have the words for the wild vagueness of the pain I felt.
There is always this problem for a writer: If you are going to write about a lowlife, make one the 'hero' of your novel, should you make him so distasteful that your reader will be grossed out, will begin to wonder what's wrong with the author? Exactly how low should a lowlife be cast?

The ones who've typically wrestled with this fictional paradox are writers Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski. Bukowski (wrote what is called "dirty realism") set his stories in such a way that the reader is prepared for barf, bestiality, brutality; for inchoate drunken rage.

But the best example, the one that Sumall might consider studying for his post-graduate thesis, would be J. P. Donleavy, especially the unnamed hero (if that is the right word) of the Ginger Man.

He should seek to figure out exactly how Donleavy gives us someone so brutish, so savage, that we are ready instantly to detest him. . . but end up, to our chagrin, being charmed out of our wits. Donleavy knows how to spin a dazzlingly vile story --- the story of a villainous hero well-caught in exquisite writing, a shower of glorious prose that forces us to care for a being we should loathe, but one that we must absolve of all his peccadillos. A sly charmer.

Let us hope that someday Sumell will be able to create with similar magic counterpoint (invented by Bach, stolen by so many ever since) so that some day his characters will be as glorious as they should be.

Go to the final
of this book.
--- Pamela Wylie
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