Meet Albert, a lesser son of Great South Bay, New York—specifically Oakdale, “a shithole on the south shore”. But call him Alby, please. Otherwise he’s liable to clobber you. Or a smash a wall. Or wallop whatever wallop-worthy surface is nearby. At minimum, he’ll insult you.
In “Punching Jackie,” the terrific first of twenty linked stories in a shuffled chronology that comprise Making Nice, Alby confides that he was at the peak of his asshole stage on the day he threw a book at his sister. The first peak, actually, as his brother kindly points out. Alby is trying to recall the scarring event because as the story opens he’s in the midst of yet another squabble with Jackie, his supposed caregiver. (“She’s been like an older brother to me, but a lady.”) But, really, Alby thinks, while fighting over the dishwasher’s pots and pans cycle, did Jackie really need to harangue him with this?: “You’re a fuckin’ thirty-year-old fuckin’ loser, and you know what else, you fuckin’ thirty-year-old fuckin’ loser? Mom was right about you, you’re a fuckin’ abusive piece of shit.” And to antagonize him with the worries expressed by their dear mother from her very hospital deathbed? That’s Alby’s defense, after the fact: “So in a sense she was sabotaging me, like a fuckin’ saboteur. Like a fuckin’ dirty, no good, no-pot-washing, dandruff-having lady saboteur. My point, then, is didn’t she, in some way, cross a line first? I think so, and that is number one on my list of seven excuses as to why it was OK for me to punch my sister in the tits.” Plus, with a temper “like a rogue wave of weapons,” Alby rationalizes further, shouldn’t he be commended for his restraint at holding back 99 percent of that wave?
Consider a list of the all-time most dysfunctional and darkly humorous literary families—say, the scrapping and funny-but-poignant Sedaris family of North Carolina, those miserable, vengeful, and acrimonious Oklahomans bickering in darkened, overheated rooms in Osage County, and the pugnacious, dish-smashing Wards of Massachusetts in David O. Russell’s The Fighter. The reeling and wounded family members of Matt Sumell’s anti-hero should now be added to it, with Alby front-and-center. Even if you don’t want to spend much time with them in real life, as characters safely distant in print, these Long Islanders are a sight to behold. With a score of stories charting Alby’s up-and-down interactions with his siblings and parents, Sumell manages to achieve a wondrous balance: pathos, humor, and serious angst rolled up in narration by a delightfully self-deprecating underdog.
Alby has been angry and unfocussed forever. Upon his mother’s death by cancer, though, he becomes a walking disaster. That misfortune happens before he drops out of college and soon after he spends 500 hours at community service (described in “Everything is a Big Deal”) under the watchful eye of born storyteller Jim, who regales adolescent Alby with, “I used to kill ducks. I’d soak bread in beer and feed it to them. After a few minutes they’d be pretty drunk. Then I’d just walk over and break their necks.”
Throughout his twenties Alby is searching for meaning and a reason to continue on, but his chosen paths steer him into dark (tavern) corners and dead ends. Fortunately, thanks to Sumell’s assured, inventive, and raucous storytelling, Alby’s scary disposition—in addition to the punched walls and car windows, sexist, homophobic, and racist words regularly fall from his mouth—he’s both engrossing and sympathetic. Whether he’s trying to care for a baby bird (in “Rape in the Animal Kingdom”), visiting his grandmother at a nursing home (“Eat the Milk”), or going to a bar (“The Block, Twice,” offers a typical scenario: “Instead, I got very drunk and don’t remember speaking to anyone that night, or leaving, and woke up on my kitchen floor next to an unopened box of fish sticks”), he’s a surprisingly thoughtful wreck.
Pill-popping, hard-drinking, and so, so angry, Alby seems permanently adrift. Between “sport-boning broads,” warring with strangers, family, and romantic partners, and drowning his sorrows at a bar, he seems fated for an existence of diminishing returns. But despite the intermittent bleakness, all radiating from Alby’s mother’s death, Sumell’s portraiture is seriously funny and often touching.
Alby’s years in the psychological wilderness are marked by compromise (trading one hell for another, as he says), iffy impulse control, fumbled opportunities, failed or fleeting connections, and, of course, a lifetime’s worth of clashes. Throughout, mercifully, Sumell drops hints that Alby gets by and finds a modicum of happiness. For one, he knows himself (e.g., “I like pussy and baseball and having a dog that’s alive. That’s what I like”). And he comes to a series of realizations. From “I’m Your Man”: “I’ve been trying to expect less, too. To not get so disappointed. To figure out a way where it doesn’t seem so lonely. For the most part it isn’t working, but every now and then something like this happens. Something a little less than bad. Something that feels like almost enough.” And in “OK,” the best of an altogether strong collection, he wraps up a difficult visit to his former home—where his grief-addled, one-legged father subsists with a flea infestation, canned food, and a leaky roof—with a Hemingwayesque epiphany: “I wasn’t thinking about anything at all, not a damn thing, and then I stopped swaying and closed my eyes and became very still and just breathed, and a tremendous calm washed over me, an untouchableness I’d never felt before, and it felt good. It was a good feeling. It was nice.”
For most, that’s not much. In Alby’s world, it’s cause to celebrate.