When I finished Making Nice*, Matt Sumell’s debut novel-in-stories, I couldn’t stop thinking of it as a bildungsroman, even though the narrator, Alby, is about thirty.
I think that’s because we can come of age not once, but at least three times: when we physically and, to some extent, emotionally “grow up” (the fodder for the archetypal bildungsroman, like Great Expectations or Jane Eyre), when we meet our own children, and when our parents die.
This last sense is speculation on my part, for which I am very grateful, but I can imagine the jarring sense of being alone in the adult world that would accompany the grief over a parent’s death.
Making Nice is about how Alby deals with his mother’s death from cancer—not very well, it turns out—but at the same time, it’s about his whole life, his family, his environment, and his choices. It’s a bruising account of that final and terrible kind of growing up.
On paper, Alby is not a sympathetic character: he drinks to violent excess, he steals pain medication not meant for him, he fights, he’s often contemptuous and belligerent toward women. He’s prone to egregious lapses in impulse control.
However, in Mr. Sumell’s capable hands, he is very much a whole person: studded with flaws more visible than most people’s, but a man of blistering emotions who demonstrates a profound capacity for empathy. The book’s structure—linked stories—is ideally suited to conveying the complexities of Alby’s character. Rage and humor sit uncomfortably close to one another, and the result is great writing, even if it’s sometimes difficult to read. This is a compassionate, humane book, and I recommend it.
(The Paris Review, which published one of the stories now included in Making Nice, has a fascinating interview with Matt Sumell that explores some of the novel’s autobiographical aspects.)
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.