Alexander Sammartino’s debut novel Last Acts (Scribner Book Company, 2024) opens with David Rizzo, a man who’s waited his whole life for a sign from above and has now received one. His absentee son, Nick, has survived an overdose, having flatlined and literally come back from the dead. To Rizzo, this means resurrection is possible. Not only for his son but also for his failing gun store. On his way to pick Nick up from the hospital, Rizzo, as Sammartino sharply writes, “began to unbend all the angles of his elaborate salvation.”
To connect the revival of life to business in a character like Rizzo—at once boisterous and insecure, resentful and optimistic, caring and self-centered—is just a taste of the absurdity Sammartino so skillfully and humorously depicts in Last Acts. The father and son pair go on to devise a number of antics to save their business and, in turn, themselves and one another. What powers this novel is a deep sense of care for these haphazard, unforgettable characters. “Who cries in paradise?” Rizzo asks. And Nick: “What happens if you act in a way that you know is wrong, but you believe in what is right? What then? Nick was under the impression that a person was not defined by his actions, but did the Lord, like, agree?”
I first encountered Sammartino’s writing during our MFA program, and his sentences and stories have stayed with me since. This novel has that same staying power. I tore through Last Acts—it’s so smart, funny, and moving—and I’m incredibly excited for readers to experience the same. Below is a conversation we had about writing characters who fuck up, the short novel as a form, satire, and more.
The Rumpus: Let’s talk about the title first—Last Acts. It sets the tone for the book and captures the central source of tension for your characters, that the decisions they’re making feel to them like their last chances to change, to save themselves. Can you talk about how you decided on this title?
Alexander Sammartino: I was lucky and the title came to me fully formed very early on. The sense of finality being sustained [and] the repetition of a last shot felt poetic to me. The apocalypse drags on.
Rumpus: The book’s setting is Phoenix, Arizona—a place that I haven’t seen depicted much in fiction. In the opening page, you draw attention to the manmade against the natural desert landscape and the names people have given both: Moon Valley Manors, Desert Ridge, Talking Stick, Superstition. . . . There’s an incantatory quality to it. I know you have a personal connection to Phoenix, but I’m curious how you approached the language of place in this novel and how that relates to the way the characters interact with and perceive Arizona?
Sammartino: Names become very unfamiliar to me when written out. For me, names feel like they’re supposed to be spoken. I felt this in Red Cavalry. One of the formal elements that gives an authority to the narration, to the sense of time and place, is the blending of proper nouns. It can make the writing tough to follow at times, I think, because there’s a name without a context. But a proper noun can be a way to establish a particular moment in time in the same manner as a photograph.
In the list you gave, most of those are actual places. I want someone who knows Maricopa County to feel the sense of place, but I also want those names—written out and arranged syntactically—to seem unfamiliar, to give off the strangeness that the desert has for me. The desert is a beautiful and weird space, snd when you make a decision about a specific desert, like Arizona, that introduces the story. This is a place of political tension and transition. I wanted to capture that. It was important to me that the setting feel distinctly Arizona, not Utah, not Nevada, not southern California, and for me the names help a good deal with that.
Language can reflect reality, but it can also do the opposite, right? So [with] a mall called “Desert Ridge,”you’re invoking this magical geographic specificity, and the referent is a bunch of stores connecting around a fountain and a food court. There’s deception in that, but there’s also a certain generosity required to see a mall as a worthy landscape.
In terms of the desert in novels, there are two books that made me see the literary potential of a place like Arizona, where I lived. Angels by Denis Johnson—that last half or so of the book, when Bill Houston goes home, I know that place. I’ve spent years in that place. And then Underworld by Don DeLillo—it’s a very different view of Phoenix from Angels, but that’s a good thing, a testament to the dramatic possibilities of the setting.
Rumpus: The first time we hung out, we talked a little about philosophy. As undergrads, you were a philosophy major and I was a rhetoric major, and from what I understood at the time, you’d read and studied a lot of analytic philosophers while I’d mainly read continental philosophers—correct me if I’m wrong! So I was a little surprised to see a Heidegger quote as your epigraph. How did you land on this quote in particular? And what do you think epigraphs do for novels?
Sammartino: You’re right. My view of things was one-sided, as in, wrong. But I liked the analytic methodology. The logic. It was required as a philosophy major at my school, so I took it. And I liked logic because—even though I had never been good at math—when applying a mathematical framework to language, everything suddenly became consequential and clear. Those analytic philosophers who relied on this methodology to build their entire systems, like Quine, also acted as major detractors to people on the continental side of things, I think. But what I overlooked was how those continental philosophers, like Heidegger, serve as important detractors to the analytic method and school.
But I’m not a philosopher or a scholar on Heidegger. I’m just a writer, and in 2020, during quarantine, I revisited Heidegger. I understood very little, but what I did understand appealed to me, especially the quote that opens Last Acts. Heidegger, this great philosopher, reminds us about our species’ propensity for mistakes, both intentionally and unintentionally. He participated in one of the twentieth century’s great mistakes.
Rizzo and his son want to stop fucking up, but to identify a right way to live, they first need to recognize their mistakes. Every opportunity for improvement becomes a moment of awareness about being wrong. That’s a humbling experience. This is, coincidentally, my writing process: rereading stuff, realizing how bad something is, then making significant changes. It initially seems to advance a sense of futility, I think, but I began to see it also as an occasion for empathy, patience, and love.
The epigraph is also important for me because, like the title, it helps create certain literary and intellectual expectations that are immediately in tension with the subject matter. It’s the high/low thing. I don’t immediately connect Heidegger with a failing gun store owner reuniting with his son, but the epigraph is a chance to establish that connection from the beginning.
Rumpus: We first encounter David Rizzo and his son Nick in 2014, then in the second half of the book, time jumps forward to 2017. Why these two years? They are notably pre- and post-Trump election.
Sammartino: I did not want the story to feel reducible to Trump’s presidency. I think Trump is a symptom of a certain kind of American extremism, not the cause. His views, his values, his greed, these are not new, and I felt like setting the novel before and after the election would help the story be about a broader American tendency—typically thought of as white and male—to rely on absurd material signals to advance one’s status at all costs.
Also, I don’t think people are reducible to their politics. Even now. It’s hard, but I think there will always be more to people—for better and for worse—than for whom they voted. This might be a childish and even problematic view, but it’s what I believe. Politics, especially now, tend to be obvious, predictable, boring. In Last Acts, I think it’s obvious Rizzo would be a Trump voter if not for, as a felon in jail, being unable to vote. The timeline also helps establish Rizzo as more than just his politics.
Rumpus: Speaking of pacing and structure, this is a fairly short novel with a lot of short chapters, which feels very intentional. We’ve talked a lot over the years about these two craft elements, so I’d love to hear from you on how you thought about the structure of this book, creating this tighter pacing, and why you did that for this particular story.
Sammartino: I knew I wanted it to be a father–son story, but I didn’t initially see that as a way to organize the book, with the first section mostly from the perspective of the father and the second section mostly from the perspective of the son.
We’ve talked a good deal about fragments in novels, and I see the short chapter as a form of fragmentation. Joan Didion is the master of this, I think. Play It As It Lays was crucial for me. The chapter break means the introduction of white space, which creates a sense of movement. Moreover, the chapter feels like a stylistic element that belongs to the novel. If I see numbered sections in a poem or story, well, I refer to them as numbered sections, not chapters. So I wanted, in constructing the book, to be especially deliberate about how I chose where to begin and end a chapter and how that contributed to the experience of time passing that is distinctly available to the novel.
Practically, my intention was for the novel to foreground its language, its use of image, for it to be well plotted without feeling plotty. The way I did that was one, by using the short chapter to create a sense of forward motion, and two, by opening on static scenes in medias res. Also, lots of things happen offstage.
This sounds stupid, but I like to think of the short novel as, like, the thin elephant; as an artistic form, it interests me because, by definition, it exists in a state of tension.
Rumpus: The book takes on two heavy and political issues: gun violence and the opioid crisis. But the book itself isn’t heavy or overly dark—oftentimes you’re very funny in the way you write how Rizzo and Nick grapple with making the right choices while being a gun dealer and an addict who, well, don’t want to be either of those anymore. How do you go about employing satire and humor in your work, and why take this path over another?
Sammartino: Humor is a rhetorical point of entry that I trust. I think fiction should be about heavy political issues. But I become very impatient with books—and people!—that just take their own self-seriousness for granted. There’s something ridiculous about that. By ridiculous I mean false. Like, “Do you think I need to hear about this from you?” One thing I love about comedy is the way you can see nothing become something, the process of turning an observation into a philosophy. It feels earned that way, I think. Where am I going with this? I guess, to me, it’s more a question of, given the seriousness of the subjects, how could I not try to be funny?
Satire, at least the type of satire I’m interested in, makes absurd logic salient through juxtaposition. Much of the satire in Last Acts focuses on mission-based economics, you know, this world coming from tech. Like, I don’t justwant to sell a product that makes me unjustly wealthy and furthers a selectively oppressive political system, I want to do good. So I want to save snails. For every plastic bag with a hole in it that you buy from me, I will commit to saving one snail. It’s absurd that we choose to buy objects based on the morals of inherently immoral holding companies, but it would also be absurd to deny the power that these holding companies have over our lives, so it seems reasonable, like the least they could do, especially if they can’t stop selling plastic bags, is to save snails too. It’s an acknowledgement, I think, that many people fundamentally want to do good, and that this is very easy to exploit. That idea is central to Last Acts.
Life is absurd. At least my life is. I truly believe that. This is a position with a well-documented history. By which I mean, it’s an intellectual cliche. But I really, truly believe it. I don’t mean life is bad or meaningless, I don’t think it’s either of those things, but I do think it’s absurd that we’re alive today and know we could be dead tomorrow. This knowledge, for me, creates a constant sense of comedy and poetry. I want to live forever because I love life, I do, but I can’t live forever because I’m alive, and that means I have to die.
Rumpus: A lot of the humor and play also comes through with the inclusion of other forms of writing—a script, news articles, tweets, email marketing. The script was especially striking because you utilize it not as some supplementary inclusion but as the mode through which that period of the story is told. We’ve talked about how novels are capacious, how they’re a form thatcan include others. I think you said something along the lines of, “We can do whatever we want in a novel.” Could you go into why you wanted to include these other forms and how you see them functioning in the world of your novel?
Sammartino: Yes, I have no doubt that I said, “We can do whatever we want in a novel” because I am a dumb arrogant prick, but, to clarify, I don’t mean that in virtue of being a novel, a book should blend rhetorical forms. I just think the novel is well-suited to accommodate many different styles of language given, as you say, its defining capaciousness.
In terms of Last Acts, a unifying idea is market rhetoric. Rizzo and Nick both exist in a world designed to make them buy things, and the different technology they interact with presents itself in different ways. For Rizzo, the television ad is the source of myth. For his son, digital advertising is where contemporary myths are found. What matters is that no matter how different the forms appear, their function is the same over time. You mention the ad script, and that is probably most representative of my anxiety that we are, as a species, living in—or through—an infomercial.
Rumpus: You approach speech and dialogue in a few different ways. There are chapters that are made up entirely of questions, in this free indirect perspective, and others made up of straight dialogue or even monologue from these characters, especially Rizzo. Could you talk about your views on writing the ways characters talk and, in turn, think?
Sammartino: This is a tough question. For me, language can be an expression of consciousness in the same way mathematics can be an expression of truth. When a character is using language, then, he’s constantly being revealed. Or, there’s that Heidegger word: “disclosed.” Nick’s section occasionally uses a question-and-answer structure, which I think is revealing of his anxiety, his constant sense of self-doubt and guilt and failure.
Rumpus: This is a question you asked me a few years ago, and I’ve been waiting to ask you in return. What art forms, other than fiction, influence your writing, and how?
Sammartino: Oh, so many. Poetry and film are the most significant influences, I think. Like many people, I’m very interested in sound, in working at the level of the syllable. This is how I think of poetry. Film is a more recent interest, but the influence there is about structure, movement, and editing. I feel like my favorite movies have a sense of urgency but remain more than just their plots.
Rumpus: Finally, can you share what you’re working on next?
Sammartino: I have another novel coming out with Scribner. It’s called Gallo. It’s about a bodybuilder who is similar to the characters in Last Acts.
Author photograph by Jonathan Aprea