April 25 2016 05:01 PM

Reviews of Sara Majka’s ‘Cities I’ve Never Lived In’ and Matt Sumell’s ‘Making Nice’

The New England coast is both geographically distant and culturally remote from the imagination of most Southern Californians. For San Diegans, it is a place of quaint fishing villages and bustling harbor towns. A place to go if you want to watch the leaves turn color and the seasons change.

Sara Majka upends these stereotypes in her haunting collection of linked short stories, Cities I've Never Lived In, published by Graywolf earlier this year. The picture she paints is of dank bars, gloomy docks and desolate streets socked in with fog where you can't get away from the ocean even if you want to.

Escape (and its aftermath) is Majka's major theme. Her characters are looking for something: eager to flee a situation or searching for those who have already left them behind. In the story "Strangers," which is about the intimacy of coming to know those closest to you after being shocked into the realization that you don't know them at all, Majka presents what feels like the key to whole collection:

"Well, you learn quickly when looking for something that it isn't there, and that you're going to the very places you won't find it. For instance, if you lose something in your house, you'll search the same place over and over again, because it stopped mattering where you look."

Lovers wait for their ex-lovers to return. Abandoned children see their mothers and fathers in the faces of strangers. Friends slip away into depression, breakdowns and even madness. There's a touch of the fairy tale at work here as Majka turns everyday anxiety into something fantastic.

"One day the ferry went out to sea but the mainland never came. The captain turned back fearing he would run out of gas. He tried again the next day, but still couldn't find the shore."

Yet Majka's language is neither flashy nor baroque. There's an observational quality to these stories that makes them feel lived and are packed with truths that wouldn't feel out of place in a personal essay, like this reflection from "Saint Andrews Hotel":

"How strange we are. How different we are from how we think we are. We fall out of love only to fall in love with a duplicate of what we've left, never understanding that we love what we love and that it doesn't change."

That's the beauty of Majka's voice: a dreary day turns Gothic, ordinary loss transforms into something wise, even if we never quite make it to the place we're striving to reach.

Matt Sumell's collection, Making Nice, which was released in paperback earlier this year by Picador, also concerns loss, but the way Alby, the "hero" of these stories, deals with his despair is to wreak more devastation.

Alby comes from a seemingly normal nuclear family on the Long Island shore, but his home is wrecked when his mother succumbs to cancer and his father, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, becomes a phantom parent in the family dynamic.

Alby loves to smoke cigarettes, get drunk and eat Hot Pockets. When he's not doing court-ordered community service he feeds his needs without ever satisfying them because at the base of Alby's hierarchy of need burns a white-hot volcano of rage. He has three modes: bored resentment, furious anger and guilt-ridden ennui. As he cycles through these phases he lashes out at his brother, sister, dying grandmother, various girlfriends and complete strangers. "People are veal," Alby snarls.

Alby is not the kind of person who keeps a lid on his emotions until things reach a boiling point. His control is marginal; his boiling point constant. Rather, Alby observes the world with OCD-like obsessiveness until he can't take it anymore.

"I grabbed the two-liter bottle of Coke, put the bottle on the table, unscrewed the cap, walked over to the cabinet, got a glass out of the cabinet, put the glass on the table, poured some Coke in the glass, paused, looked at the dog—who was looking at me—while I waited for the fizz to go away, topped off the glass, put the bottle down on the table, picked up the glass, drank half, put the glass down, thought about my grandmother, and punched the bottle off the table. Sparkles licked puddles of cola."

While Alby is hardly a paragon of restraint, we need more people lashing out at the world because there's so much about it that's lousy and dumb that it deserves to be lashed out at, Hot Pockets notwithstanding. Alby isn't a nice guy and Making Nice isn't a nice book, but its outrageous humor will make you laugh.


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