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Making Nice

Fiction  |  Stories
240 pages
5.8” x 8½” Hardcover
ISBN 9781627790932
First Edition
Henry Holt and Co.
New York, New York
Available HERE
Review by Al Kratz

I first heard about Matt Sumell when I read his story, “All Lateral,” in One Story, issue #201. One Story has a wide range of great stories, but for the most part, they aren’t humorous. (“Fear Itself,” #192, Katie Coyle’s story about a girl’s relationship at a museum with a wax figurine of FDR is another awesome exception to this.) But “All Lateral,” and its main character, Alby, had me laughing on every page, and it all ended too soon. I wanted more. So, I was happy when I saw his name on the list of One Story 2015 Debutantes: authors published in One Story who had debut books in the past year. I was even happier when I heard his book, Making Nice, was a collection of Alby stories, including “All Lateral.”

What you need to know about Making Nice: It’s well written, and it’s hilarious. Well, I think it’s hilarious. When it comes to Alby, there will be two kinds of people. Some might think he is a funny anti-heroic character worth taking for a 225-page ride. Others might think he is an offensive pig who shouldn’t be humored—it will only make guys like him worse. I’m ready to stand tall and trumpet the call of the first group. I know I’m not alone because a friend of mine told me about reading these stories out loud to her husband on a road trip where they cry-laughed for 170 miles.

At its core, Making Nice is the story of a 30-year-old man named Albert, who goes by the nickname Alby. The book is 20 connected, first-person stories, dealing with the death of his mother, his relationships with his brother and sister, and their father.

At Alby’s core, he is the kind of guy who tells his sister lovingly to shut the fuck up. He punches babies, but only when he was a toddler, and as an adult he only thinks about punching them; he doesn’t actually do it. He is honest, regardless of the damage it does to himself or to the people he loves. This is made clear from the opening sentence to the book:

Thing is she didn’t think that pots and pans should go in the dishwasher, so I pointed out that there’s a setting on the dishwasher for pots and pans, just look, it’s right there, open your fuckin’ eyeballs.
(“Punching Jackie,” p. 1).

The humor and the self-aware reflection give it its quality. He’s not unabashed. He’s right there with the reader and our I Can’t Believe He Did That and our What Is His Problem? In this opening exchange with his sister, he reflects on their ability to go in for the kill, to find out what buttons hurt the most:

[...] I’d be lying if I said I haven’t done the same thing myself in arguments past. Just the other night even this girl in a bar was not nice to my nice friend James so I said, “Wow, that’s ugly.” When she said, “What is?” I said, “Your face. Now get outta here.” It wasn’t true, but I was pretty sure it would hurt her feelings, and as it turned out I was correct.
(p. 1).

This life has its rules. In “Their Appointed Rounds,” he finds a fellow bar patron named Donny on the ground out in the parking lot. He hasn’t been friends with Donny since elementary, when Donny punched him in the side of the head during a math test, but in the rules of this life, you help a man when he is down like this. But this is the type of help you give:

I kicked him harder the second time, and without looking, he felt around with his left hand, discovered my right shoe, patted around the laces, and untied the knot. I found it strangely endearing, his refusal to behave in spite of his vulnerability.
(p. 98).

It also has its language, like turning this into a verb: unprotecto-ed. As in:

I unprotecto-ed her best friend after my mother’s funeral [...].
(“Toast,” p. 134).

I find it interesting the common ring that Making Nice has to the title Breaking Bad. Both are great takes on the idea of an anti-hero, unlikable characters, unsympathetic characters. Breaking Bad started with the idea of good gone bad: Mr. Chips turns into a meth dealer. Making Nice came from an expression his mother would say to Alby when she knew he was going to do something extreme, like push his brother off a roof or punch a baby. She would tell him to Make Nice, and he could. He could tame his bad before breaking everything and everyone around him.

I like Walter White. I like Tony Soprano. I like Alby. What does that say about me? I saw an interview with a producer of Good Will Hunting, Chris Moore, who said that character was the first thing he looks for in a story. He wanted someone to root for. Someone he’d hang with. I’d hang with Walter and Alby. (I probably wouldn’t with Tony Soprano. That would be too scary.) I saw a panel at this year’s AWP in Minneapolis called Sympathy for the Devil: Writing “Unlikable” Characters. I noticed even they put the unlikable in quotes, as if admitting that it’s a slippery term. In this panel, they mentioned that the critical quality of any character regardless of likability, is that the character must be compelling.

Getting my defense of Alby ready, I found some interesting definitions of terms from Oxford online:

Sympathetic: 1. feeling, showing, or expressing sympathy. 2. Pleasant or agreeable. Attracting the liking of others.
Sympathy: Understanding between people; common feeling.
Compelling: Evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.
Compel: Force or oblige someone to do something.

This might not build the case for Alby or any character that isn’t exact to a traditional view of likable. That seems to limit ourselves too much and to stop us from finding beauty. These definitions lead to circular logic that still might speak the best truth: I like the characters I like. This seemed to be a concept that Matt was conscious of throughout the book, and how he got it all to work is genius. All I can say is Alby is funny as hell. If you stick with him, you might enjoy a story about a man trying to learn to live. Trying to overcome loss and defeat. Trying to be understood. Trying to look at life in different perspectives. You just might be embarrassed to like him!

Al Kratz is our Fiction Reviewer for The Volt. He is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa, an Assistant Fiction Editor at Pithead Chapel, and is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. He has had work featured in Red Savina Review, Wyvern Lit, Flash Flood, Daily Palette, Apeiron Review, Ardor Flash Fiction, 1000words, Gravel, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere, and he is the winner of the 2013 British Fantasy Society Flash Fiction Competition.

• This book was received by the reviewer from the author at an AWP event, where the reviewer briefly met the author in-person and expressed interest in reviewing the book. • Permalink • Tag: The Volt •

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