Alby is not nice. In the short story, “American Ninja 2,” he riffs on his recently-deceased grandmother’s dentures: “They were yellowed and ugly and shifted in her mouth and I wondered why the dentist didn’t make them pretty and white. Realism, I guessed, the truthful treatment of material. Here’s some more: V.C. Andrews romance novels are popular, the dentist hurts, Q-tips get yellow. The dog waddled by and I imagined cutting it in half with a sword.”
“American Ninja 2” is one in a series of 20 linked stories set on Long Island that make up author Matt Sumell’s debut book of fiction, Making Nice (2007, Picador). Alby is the anti-hero, angry and prone to randomly inflicting verbal and physical harm on others—family members, friends, total strangers. Sumell’s achievement is that, despite all the bad, Alby is a sympathetic and relatable character. Later in the same story he says of the family dog, Sparkles, “Her vulnerability made something in me ache to hurt her.” Honest and raw, it’s the blunt-force trauma of Alby’s observations that reveal him coping with grief in the best ways he knows how, even if they’re ultimately destructive.
Alby’s mother dies from cancer when he’s still in his teens. It was she who wanted him, her oldest of three, to “make nice,” and he manages on occasion to do so—befriending an injured bird, slugs, dogs, and even humans, now and then. Still, even the kindest gestures are couched in masculine bluster. Once the bird is healed, Alby’s determined to train him until he dies or becomes “a goddamned falcon that flies around the neighborhood all day eating raccoons and dogs and little toddlers before he flies back to my forearm and takes shits.”
A line from the first story, “Punching Jackie,” about a sudden hostility toward Alby’s sister, sums up the main theme of the collection: “[There] is a certain clarity in violence.” There’s also a certain cathartic grace. Alby can want “to open every jar for every lady. Helping. I felt like helping. I felt like I could help.” He can exhibit compassion, tenderness—as he does to his dying grandmother in a hospital, though he also wonders what it would be like to bang the nurse. He drinks, has sex, smokes marijuana, fights. It’s all the same to him, but, of course, it isn’t. Although Sumell acknowledges that some parts of Alby come from his own life, verisimilitude cannot account for the fine frenzy of Sumell’s style—the simple diction and repetition of key words and phrases that inform Alby’s thoughts, as if he were working himself up (or down) verbally as a prelude to action.
Sumell, who grew up in Oakdale, knows his way around low– and middle-income western Suffolk County. A graduate of UC Irvine’s MFA program, he says he worked on shaping Alby for 10 years. Some of the stories in Making Nice first saw light in, among other places, Esquire and The Paris Review, but there’s no way one story can do what the collection does: sustain a narrative that turns one man’s alienation into a universal account of pain and yearning. “I don’t have the words for the wild vagueness of the pain I felt,” says Alby about his mother’s death. He then wonders if numbers could approximate it, “if there’s some equation, some formula that could calculate the force by which my mother’s death impacted me…maybe an algorithm could better explain how her suffering and dying divided time into before and after…” But then defensive, ferocious anger takes over, and he’s off again, cursing, striking out and joking his way through.