Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Matthew Vollmer

Matthew Vollmer's work has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including Paris Review, Epoch, VQR, Tin House, and Oxford American.

His short story collection, Future Missionaries of America, is now available. A recent review of this book in the New York Times ended with this sentence: "Expertly structured and utterly convincing, these stories represent the arrival of a strong new voice."

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've been reading a lot of Joy Williams recently: Ill Nature, a collection of essays on the environment, and Escapes, a short story collection that's apparently out of print. I love the force of Williams' sentences, her mordant humor, the shockingly odd but perfectly selected details, the characters who seem as earnest as they are unhinged, the unpredictable arcs of her plotlines.

Chris Adrian's A Better Angel amazed me. The ones narrated by or seen through the eyes of sick or traumatized children are the best. In one, a girl with short gut syndrome is writing a little fictional handbook about animals with various ailments. In another, a kid at a party is thought by his friends to be the antichrist, after a Ouija board makes that assessment. In every story, the situations are desperate, the characters supremely smart and aware.

Dexter Filkins' The Forever War recounts his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. So far, it includes depictions of combat, Saddam's palaces, torture videos, hospitals crumbling without electricity, jogging in 130 degree weather, character studies of soldiers, and an anecdote about how, in order for soldiers to search the houses in one village, a sergeant distracted the men there by offering to sell a blond woman (of course, none of the bids turned out to be high enough, but lots of guns were recovered). Harrowing and often revelatory.

Rhode Island Notebook is a big fat poem by Gabriel Gudding, written between 2002 and 2004, during trips from Illinois to Rhode Island to visit his young daughter. It's as much a hymn to America as it is a lamentation of how screwed up everything is. There's about a ten page section devoted to dung--yes, feces--that's truly hilarious.

I never thought I'd like Jane Smiley's Moo. I mean, the title is the sound a cow makes. Also, and I know this is mean, but her name is "Smiley." It just seemed, I dunno... silly. Turns out the book's pretty solid. I can't imagine writing a book with this many characters--it really does run the gamut of the university microcosm, from cafeteria server to professor of hog science to sorority girl to provost--and she almost seems to pull the whole thing off without these characters becoming caricatures.

Larry Brown's Dirty Work is amazing: best book I've read this year. Basically, it's two Vietnam vets, side by side in a hospital, talking. One of them is a quadruple amputee, the other's just arrived after an accident. The two of them take turns with the narration, recounting their lives and what they've lost. I was stunned by the way Brown harnessed the energy of these voices, the way he was able to evoke the history of two absolutely wrecked lives and sneak in a storyline whose ending had me shaking my head for days.
Visit Matthew Vollmer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue