Holden Caulfield meets Andrew Dice Clay in this debut featuring 20 closely linked stories with a single narrator and a chunk of his life rendered in a coarse, pugnacious style.
Alby introduces himself during a fight with his sister about loading the dishwasher that calls up memories of their mother’s last days with cancer. Family dominates the stories when Alby isn’t describing his drinking, fighting, pets, sex life and lousy jobs. Filtering isn’t for him, so sentences and paragraphs unroll in minicatalogs. A list of roadkill he has seen is followed by: “My mother had cancer,” and then: “I came home, held her hand, pushed her pain button, did her nails and fluffed her pillows, brushed her teeth and emptied her piss bag.” The story “Making Nice” starts with a paragraph of sentences about misbehavior and violence from ages 5 to 21. Yet a story about nursing a baby bird reveals Sumell’s absurdist humor and a softer Alby, who believes he’s raising a fierce raptor and even orders a falconing glove online, only to learn he has rescued a cardinal. Another animal will help an older Alby see what has sustained his dark side when he confronts the death of his dog and the attendant pain—“My heart a pond in a hailstorm”— making him wonder about “the force by which my mother’s death impacted me.” Something human is emerging from the rough specimen who found so much ugliness while growing up in the white suburbs of Long Island. By the long penultimate story, “OK,” Alby has matured enough to enjoy a day with his father in a touching tale, the book’s best.
There may be man caves where Sumell’s freshman effort will be proudly displayed and even read, but based on “OK,” he looks set to produce better, more broadly appealing work.