MAKING NICE, by Matt Sumell. Henry Holt & Company, 223 pp., $25.
The young man named Alby at the center of Matt Sumell's bristling new short story collection, "Making Nice," hails from Oakdale and paints his little corner of Long Island's South Shore strictly in shades of black.
"Lazyjack's in Sayville," he says of a local eatery, "was like most waterfront clam shacks on Long Island, overpriced hepatitis threats run by ----" and here he uses an anatomical expression that can't be repeated in a family newspaper.
It's hard to give the flavor of the book without such words, just as it's hard to describe Alby himself, the narrator and protagonist, without resort to body parts. So let's just call him a violent jerk, the type who treats people like dirt but sentimentalizes animals. "I've been in over a dozen accidents, all of which were my fault. I hit a bridge once. I drove through a closed garage door. It's stopping I have a problem with." Imagine, in other words, a drunken Holden Caulfield with a faulty on/off switch, and no way to modulate between dead still and full blast.
Yet Sumell is a gifted conjurer, and his portrait of Alby is brilliantly lifelike. By themselves most of these are pretty good stories, too -- vivid and heartfelt and animated by a distinctive voice. All of them are afflicted by Alby's mindless hostility, yet buoyed by his furious energy and keen powers of observation. Most of them are set on Long Island, and locals will recognize the familiar flat landscape, including the low-rent bars, neighborhood eateries and seductive waters.
Here's the Babylon LIRR station, there's the former Bay Shore OTB. The menus at some Greek diners overwhelm with choice. At an Oakdale deli we encounter "a long line of landscapers and bricklayers and construction grunts," their boots spattered with paint, jawing about the Mets. We visit Jones Beach, too, but only because Alby is sentenced to 500 hours of community service there.
They're linked, these stories, showing us Alby in Southern California for a bit, and then trying to rescue his alcoholic father -- in part by pushing this one-legged senior citizen off a boat into "the suddenly not so great Great South Bay." And Alby changes a little; he grows less violent, his hairline retreats, he starts to get emotional watching jewelry commercials.
But there's no overarching plot, and Sumell misses the chance to follow his tragic protagonist across the decades. Ultimately, reading these stories all together is like being stuck at a bar with Alby perseverating about his dead mother; after starting out with so much promise, they just don't seem to go anywhere -- something no one is likely to say about their talented author.