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Book Review: Making Nice

By (February 13, 2015) No Comment

Making Nicemaking nice cover

by Matt Sumell

Henry Holt, 2015

Alby, the 30-year-old main character and narrator of Matt Sumell’s debut novel-in-stories (a recently very popular oddity that carries more than a whiff of laziness about it) Making Nice, has been described by the book’s hysterical advance notices as a masterful comic creation, a stunningly original character, an unforgettable avatar of the brutal, ugly American id, that sort of thing.

Readers who’ve encountered the last fifty such masterful comic creations in recent new fiction seasons (Douglas Coupland’s Worst. Person. Ever., for instance, or every third male character in George Saunders, or any of the debut novels-in-stories to come out of Brooklyn in the last two years, all of which feature crass jerks as their heroes) will know already what to expect: rivers of alcohol, fusillades of profanity, a helping of mawkish sentimentality being passed off as emotional depth, and some priceless comic riffs on karaoke.

Making Nice tells the sordid stories of Alby’s life: his alcoholism, his contentious relationship with his sister (fisticuffs are involved), his sex life, his contentious relationship with his father (more fisticuffs), his various run-ins with the law, and his mother’s death from cancer.

That last bit is the occasion for the aforementioned mawkish sentimentality, and the clumsy handling of it all is this otherwise-forgettable book’s only stab at being really annoying. With this storyline more than with any other, Sumell employs a flat-handed gimmick of rapid subject-switching that’s as cheap as it is obvious:

People ate veal. I dated a chubby Catholic girl who told me her parents never touched her, that as a kid she wanted to be touched so badly she looked forward to the lice and scoliosis tests at school. I knew a guy in junior high who told everyone he owned a baby elephant; years later he murdered his stepmother by beating her head in with a can of Chicken & Stars soup. I saw cats, dogs, possums, raccoons and squirrels, a fox, a kangaroo, a bear, deer, rabbits, and birds, toads, rats and mice and snakes with their guts smashed out, their insides outside, their heads crushed and dead on sunny roadsides. My mother had cancer.

A few pages later, we get this: “She died a week later. I got a job gutting houses.”

It’s a mystery to me what kind of reader could take any satisfaction out of such crude freshman-year attempts at emotional manipulation. Wow, that Alby! He’s such a tough guy he doesn’t bother to segue! But you can tell he’s hurting on the inside! Alby is never a particularly believable character, but the use of this ham-handed gimmick makes him seem like an entirely one-dimensional writing exercise, a student’s first-draft response to a “write an unsympathetic character” exercise.

The phoniness extends throughout the book. Whenever Alby indulges in an internal monologue, whenever Sumell gives us a look at this character’s thoughts, the wrong notes are virtually deafening:

This is the one where I AmEx-ed my way from California to Ohio to see Fatlegs after she headfirsted her way into the world and forever ruined Tara’s vagina – that’s what my brother says anyway, and he would know, he’s seen it – me calling her Fatlegs because she had fat legs and ’cause I’m not clever. When he put her in my arms for the first time I couldn’t help but be amazed at how little she was, and loud, and then I was disgusted when he told me the details of the delivery as he sipped his bottle of Budweiser, me in my head recalling that smart thing a smart person once said about birth: Between shit and piss we are born … but in Latin! “Yep,” I said to myself …

Yep! He’s not clever, but he remembers a Latin tag some “smart person” said once; yep, he’s not clever, but he coins verbs out of “AmEx” and “headfirst” on the fly; yep, he’s not clever, but we’re not supposed to forget for an instant that his author is. This kind of preening is fairly common in debut works, but it’s rendered just that much more grating by how poorly it aligns with a non-preening character like Alby. It makes the novel-in-stories feel false from beginning to end.

In his Acknowledgments, Sumell thanks upwards of 350 people, so it’s obvious this book was birthed out of an extensive support system. For his inevitable sophomore outing, he should try a drafty garrett in complete solitude. That sometimes helps to curtail swanning inauthenticity.