The six stories in Matthew Vollmer’s Gateway to Paradise plow dark furrows across the landscape, furrows at once unified yet unique, parallel channels promising individual reward. The unifying darkness is subtle, distinct, reassuring in its way. It is a darkness that blooms rather than dooms, mesmerizes rather than terrifies, reveals rather than obscures. As for what keeps each story fresh and unique: Vollmer’s dark field flowers with the supernatural, the steadfast, the ridiculous, the sublime. Salvation. Penance.
Downtime traffics in a widowed dentist’s experience with the supernatural while Probation probes steadiness amid despair; The Visiting Writer explores the ridiculous through a wry self-awareness and Dog Lover gives us one woman’s heart-quickening effort to hit that spot long overlooked by her husband. Scoring shows how easily we can cave to flattery and the concomitant need for salvation, while the title piece, with its great potential for total blackout, veers into a penance no reader could predict.
Probation impressed me most of all. Vollmer crams so many disturbed components into the story that it’s impossible to look away. Try putting it in a sentence. A cuckold named Abe on probation (not for avenging his wife’s infidelity in the grocery store break room with a geriatric named Hogsed who wears a braid to the waist, a video of which fornication has gone viral across a small cracker town), drives around in search of the 12-year-old daughter he fears is the victim of an age-mate sexual predator while narrating for his son what he did to wind up on probation in the first place, a story involving an FBI chopper haunting the mountains in search of abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, a laser pointer, and some bad judgment.
So much has gone wrong for Abe, yet he seems incapable of dejection. He’s a steady man. When he imagines Rudolph, the source of all Abe’s legal trouble, being eaten alive, its impossible not to see the bomber’s demise as an embodiment of Abe’s own hard luck: “The teeth of something terrible tearing you up, bit by bit, and you, completely aware, completely awake, can’t do anything but watch.” There’s no self-pity here. No taking control or changing the narrative. Only endurance: is Abe even aware that the gnashing teeth are bringing about his own death by a thousand nicks?
Vollmer manages such richness by folding cause neatly into effect, jotting short dispatches into backstory, then getting right back to the immediate. Take this moment in The Visiting Writer, where an untenured writing professor accepts the $50 payout for what should be a quick trip to the airport to collect a Grande Dame of letters:
Because it wasn’t enough to hand the visiting writer a check for ten thousand dollars—an amount this representative might’ve used to purchase a new washer and dryer, and to install energy efficient windows, and to replace rotten siding on the southern side of his house—one had to treat her like royalty, had to ensure every whim was met, had to inquire about when and with whom she would take her meals…
The story delivers us into the world of literary aspiration, a lament on the lack of success, a self examination, perhaps, of the baser cravings and realities of scribes too early in their careers to have realized lasting achievement: “As an untenured professor, I depended upon a world of illusions to sustain my artistic legitimacy…” He’s an “emerging” writer (though emerging from what, not even he could have said). Oh, he’s published a novel but its worth just a cent on eBay, and his work’s appeared in print, but in those places that pay two contributor copies, and in all honesty even his current position with the university is a gift grafted onto his wife’s teaching contract. He amounts to so little in the world, in fact, that even the bathroom faucets fail to register his existence.
So what happens when the visiting writer seems to signal the possibility of a fling? It’s an innocent dinner with a woman old enough to be his grandmother, yet the allure is there. A willing participant, he grinds the butt of her cigarette against the sole of his shoe, literally her human ash-tray. She invites him to escort her to her room, with a purpose, and puts her card “into—and out of—a slot”. The human ash tray thinks, “As idiotically self-destructive as it was, I couldn’t help wonder what it might be like to open up a hole in my life, to slip into a darker realm where I would be utterly—and no doubt deleteriously—transformed.” In ways the reader might not predict The Visiting Writer gives us aspiration, humiliation, abject failure, and a reality more soul-crushing than a mailbox full of generic rejection slips.
Throughout this tidy collection Vollmer is unafraid to push into strange, even grotesque territory, marking it all with just enough of the familiar to make it not just credible, but genuine.
A must read.