Prodigal Thoughts

Matthew Vollmer
Gateway to Paradise: Stories
(Persea, 2015)

Last month, my wife and I went with family to Wyoming, where we stayed in a wooden cabin fronted by a tall wide deck, offering a perfect natural picture: the rocky peaks of the Teton Range, the long grasses and grounds between here and there, and a high blue sky all swollen with mountain-sized clouds made of white feathers. A fat brown moose took a nap in our yard. It was sublime, bug-buzzingly peaceful, and a welcome change from concrete life. On the second day, on that deck, my sharp niece did an impression of me. In a grumpy voice, she said: “I’m uncle Scott, and I need my quiet time.” I laughed, told her to get lost, and went back to my book.

I was reading Matthew Vollmer’s new story collection, Gateway to Paradise, and I was taken with how much of this book, too, was about quiet time. Or better, how much we want it, but we hardly ever get it, and when we do, it often undoes us. “I couldn’t help but wonder what it might be like to open a hole in my life, to slip into a darker realm where I would be utterly—and no doubt deliriously—transformed,” says the narrator of “The Visiting Writer.” And from Ted Barber, protagonist in “Downtime:” “They called it ‘downtime’ for a reason: if you had too much of it, you could fall through a hole in your mind.” I was also taken with how many times in Vollmer’s stories I came across the mention of prayer. I eventually started to circle the word. People prayed everywhere. They prayed in changing rooms, just as they were about to secretly get it on and a security guard comes knocking. People pray in motel rooms with strangers, guns stashed in their purses, and on the run after shooting a creepy uncle, who’s actually a second cousin, once removed. People have visions of their own deaths and the deaths of others. I thought of prayer in other books, and asked myself where else I’d seen it so often and done so imaginatively well. I thought of Flannery O’Connor’s recently published A Prayer Journal and I thought of Marilynne Robinson’s essay and lecture collection Absence of Mind, a book partly about prayer (and subtitled The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self). I then thought of Matthew Vollmer and felt foolish for not having realized until that moment his pretty apparent creative preoccupation with prayer.

I also knew there was a phrase regarding prayer in Robinson’s book that seemed appropriate to reading Vollmer, but I could not remember what it was. Let’s not pretend I could. And so when I reluctantly returned home I dug the book out from my shelves, as I did the O’Connor, and all of Vollmer’s books, his two previous story collections and the two story anthologies he edited and helped birth into the world. I revisited his first collection Future Missionaries of America and found them still very funny, still very sad, strangely observant, and unsurprisingly chock full of prayerful moments, as you might guess from the title. It’s also about as traditional as Vollmer has ever been with his writing, or—my guess, anyway—ever will be. His next collection of stories (billed as essays, but they remain stories to me) was Inscriptions for Headstones, thirty epitaphs that spell out thirty separate lives (or is it really one?) in mile-long single sentences, like the beginning of this one, numbered “XX:” “here lies a man whose life frequently seemed as if its purpose were merely to exhibit to his closest family members the extravagant failures of his own character.” The book is un-apologetically prayerful, not to mention formally daring.

The two anthologies are even more so. Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (co-edited by David Shields) serves as a poke in the eye to staunch story traditionalists, insisting story is a playground and every form of text is ripe for play: letters, to-do lists, disclaimers, math problems, glossaries, interviews, acknowledgements, lectures, police blotters, Twitter feeds, etc. The one unorthodox form conspicuously missing (in hindsight) is prayer, and his second anthology A Book of Uncommon Prayer, sixty short stories in the form of invocation fills that gap and then some. Full disclaimer: one of them is mine.

All of which presently brings us to Gateway to Paradise, something of a return to original form, for him, as the stories appear to be rather traditional. They have beginnings, middles, and ends. They are about love, family, and loss. They look like traditional stories, they sound like traditional stories, and if it quacks like a duck, I’m happy to report they are not, as he has now conjoined his two writing brain halves, his formal ease with tradition and an impulse to upset your applecart. There is little to nothing else like it.

In Absence of Mind, Robinson asks what at first appears to be an uncommonly outmoded question, but reveals itself, per usual with regard to her observations, to be thoughtful, prodding, even bracing: “How does your soul fare? Are you open to the challenge of a prodigal thought—in memory, in discovery, in prayer?” Bad readers of Robinson, and there are plenty, wince at the mention of words like “soul” and “prayer,” and so they miss the subtle tug of war she wages with traditional religious grammar. She also notes, “We suffer today the exclusion of the felt life of the mind.” Her great worry is obviously not over immortality, or some supposed ability to chat with God. Her worry is we are too quickly losing, maybe even abandoning ourselves. The soul, for Robinson, is “a name for an aspect of deep experience,” “the self that stands apart from itself, that questions, reconsiders, appraises,” and “the haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone.”   

This is a soul I can believe in. This is a soul I do believe in, and for serious readers it’s not only viable, but it’s necessary, assumed. And what of prayer? If we are to believe her characters, “Prayer is a discipline in truthfulness, in honesty,” according to the ornery Reverend Boughton in Home. And a “good prayer” sounds something like: “I am miserable and bitter at heart, and old fears are rising up in me so that everything I do makes everything worse,” according to Glory of the same novel, which sounds a whole lot more like communing with yourself, rather than anyone else. For Robinson, prayer—or self-communion, “inwardness,” the “life of the mind”—is an opportunity for prodigal thought. Which is so to say, reckless thought, extravagant thought, radical or extreme thought, also her challenge for memory, discovery, and dream.

Prodigal thought. This was the phrase I was looking for, and Vollmer has long been interested in rendering thought, but really all writers are. Since Inscriptions, however, his rendering has become rather radical. Each of the stories in that volume attempts the arc-life of a single thought in a single sentence: “here lies a man who every time he took a walk after dark in his neighborhood always and without fail asked himself why don’t you go for a walk every single night of your life and what’s keeping you from doing this one simple lovely thing and furthermore what’s holding other people back and why aren’t more people out and why in each and every home that is not utterly dark does one always find at least one TV flashing and why does the deceased care and why doesn’t he look up at the starts more often.”—and so on, for two more pages. The story is pure thought. It’s all “cat out of the bag,” as it were. But no cat, and no bag, just the outing: thought let go.

What works so well and uniquely in Gateway is the marriage of thought and behavior, thought and consequence. In “The Visiting Writer,” the best story I have ever read about bookish jealousy and presumption, “an untenured professor” who “depended on a world of allusions to sustain [his] artistic legitimacy,” is picking up a visiting writer of note, to speak and read at his employing university. She, the visiting writer, “was of a different ilk.” Although, “despite having been a finalist for the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and the PEN/Faulkner, it was safe to say that her name would not have rung the average American reader’s bell. Yet among readers of so-called literary fiction, she was well known.” Critics had focused on her “preoccupation with violence and sexual deviance.” The narrator also mentions how “she worked in her youth as an exotic dancer and prostitute.” His constant emotional vacillation wavers between passive aggression and titillation. So much so that he convinces himself an affair is all but inevitable. Little happens in the story, least of all sex. Instead we eavesdrop on his vulnerable, presumptuous, often inappropriate, sometimes contradictory, and occasionally petty thought process. More, we are forced to think of the writer of “the writer” (Vollmer), and, worse, we are forced to hazard a guess (at least I was, anyway) of what writer the visiting writer might be based. What might have come off as “uber-meta” (two prefixes that should never be linked ever again) is instead brilliantly cruel, uncomfortably funny, and revelatory. After finishing, I felt nothing short of indicted. As far as I’m concerned, that means a very good read. 

“Probation” has much more the flavor of the whole book, which largely takes place in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and tells the story of a man on under strict house arrest, after aiming a benign red laser pointer at a federal helicopter, and subsequently losing family to a trial separation. His twelve-year-old daughter has not come home, his wife isn’t answering her phone, and so he has no choice but to leave the premises and find them. In “Dog Lover,” we have a woman who loves dogs, her dog, and a jar of peanut butter—and, yes, it goes there, but in doing so takes us to an entirely unexpected, resonant place. “Gateway to Paradise” tells of Riley on the run after helping her boyfriend kill her lottery-winning uncle who’s not really her uncle, and finding herself with strangers at an amusement park. “Downtime,” is the story of poor Ted Barber trying to simply enjoy his vacation, but the ghost of his drowned wife keeps showing up: “Her bathing suit was tattered. Her greenish blonde hair was tangled with seaweed, her skin peppered with sand and bits of shell innards. She limped out of the elevator and rounded the corner.”  “Scoring” tells of Martin “Stash” Postachian attending a teacher’s convention (which he cannot afford), getting hit on by a beautiful waitress, and eventually finding himself stuck in a department store changing room as “the World’s Longest Prayer unfolds.” Which readily brings us back to prayer.

Prayer functions in the collection as a fantasy: “It might be nice, [Riley] thought, to hear a prayer, to believe—if only for a moment—that somebody else knew the magic words that would help her.” More interesting though, prayer is a place to go to, a safe (meta)physical space, and I’ve not previously come across the idea. Stash says to himself, during the World’s Longest Prayer: “He feels something then, not exactly a conviction, but a sort of acknowledgement […] They’d clasp one another’s hands, launch their silent prayers, and then whether they wanted to or not, they’d walk inside.” On poor Ted Barber: “Like a man returning to the material world after having disappeared inside a prayer, he raised his head, blinked rapidly, and zeroed in on the elevator’s sole passenger, who, he was surprised to realize, he recognized. It was his wife, Tavey. She didn’t look good. Then again, she was dead.” There is something really quite beautiful in imagining such a thing, that to close one’s eyes means to disappear from the world. It’s a lovely notion, but also child-like. More importantly, it’s a place denied to the people of these stories. It’s a place of religious disappointment: “Riley felt that the family had retreated momentarily inside a secret communal place—one to which she couldn’t gain access.” She wonders if she looks “closely enough, maybe she to could learn how to unselfconsciously retreat inside herself, to a private sanctuary where she too could find assurance and grace. The woman’s face however, refused to divulge its secrets. Maybe, Riley thought, it didn’t have any. Maybe that’s where its tranquility originated. It was a face with nothing to hide.” Riley is not denied access because she does not believe, but because she has something to hide, which might be another way of saying Riley is hiding from herself, running not just from the law, but from herself. For all the internal wrestling within these characters they each seem to lack certain self-awareness. They are engaged with the “life of the mind,” yes, there’s lots to think about, and Robinson would be happy, but they do so while circumnavigating the very cores of their selves. They hide from the obvious undoing flaw, like Riley: “What choice did she have but to bury the secret deep, plant it like a bone in the dark?” Which, of course, makes for troubled lives⎯but compelling fiction.

This is the beginning of my favorite prayer from O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal: “My dear God, how stupid we people are until you give us something. Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us. I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from. There is a whole sensible world around me that I should be able to turn to Your praise; but I cannot do it. Yet at some insipid moment I may possibly be thinking of floor wax or pigeon eggs, the opening of a beautiful prayer may come up from my subconscious and lead me to write something exalted. I am not a philosopher or I could understand these things.” Lucky for us, O’Connor stopped separating the two. The same goes for Vollmer. Gateway to Paradise is full of dark visions, and dead-on humor, as much a motley of earthly detritus—hotel rooms, gas station T-shirts, Sears family photographs, and RVs—as it is of prayers answered, and unsaid. So what’s wrong with it? I want more. Six prodigal stories strange and surprising, one of them, the last, a viscously funny and violent Jim Harrison-esque novella, and yet still I want more. Maybe one day Vollmer will take on the novel. I pray he does.

Contributor

Scott Cheshire

SCOTT CHESHIRE is the author of High As The Horses’ Bridles. He is the interview editor at the Tottenville Review, a co-host of The Workshop podcast, and teaches writing at the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop.

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