(New York, NY: Persea Books, 2015)
Every year in May, millions of students at thousands of high schools around the world take Advanced Placement (AP) Exams. Considering you are the type of person who has stopped surfing the net to read a book review, perhaps you were one of those teenagers who took an AP English course. Either way, I imagine you’ve never given much thought to the educators who gather in convention centers each June, reading and scoring student essays for eight hours a day, and even less to how they spend the other sixteen hours. In Matthew Vollmer’s story “Scoring,” an AP Reader goes on a minor quest to buy running shoes (so he won’t miss out on the opportunity to ogle a hot Table Leader on her morning jog) and ends up seduced by a cute sales girl into buying an overpriced manicure kit. What starts out as a married man with a wandering eye wanting to hide the exorbitant charge on his Discover card escalates into an involuntary lesson in self-reckoning when he is forced to score his soul for “how on fire for God are you?” Even while shopping, he cannot escape the mindset of an AP Reader:
He hates the mall, would probably give it a dash, if he had to rate it, since a dash, in the world of Advanced Placement scores, is reserved for something that’s so awful, so superfluous that its existence doesn’t make sense.
Gateway to Paradise, Vollmer’s second story collection, delights in transforming daily routine into comedic tragedy, signifying that even lives perceived as dull possess an edge capable of drawing blood.
Set in small Southern towns, as well as the edge of the Smokey Mountains, these unflinching and unnerving tales keep a watchful eye on seemingly ordinary folks as they dive down rabbit holes to escape monotony, only to land in perverse wonderlands of their own making.
The opening story, “Downtime,” features a local dentist who, working to overcome a horrific tragedy, takes solace in the dark orifices of his patients’ mouths,
Mouths — where bacteria flourished, where puffy gums bled at the slightest touch, where teeth had been worn down to little eraser-sized nubs, and where incomprehensively fat tongues slapped against his rubber-gloved fingers — had given him purpose.
Except, after his personal ghost hunts him down and lures the anguished tooth doctor into a disturbing sexual act, you may find yourself forever perturbed by what else your dentist’s hands, gloved or no, have probed besides your mouth.
Vollmer’s characters don’t always eject headlong from the well-travelled road; sometimes they stray off with one misguided step, acting on impulses many of us may have entertained for a flickering moment before their inevitable dismissal. Again, I’m imagining that you’ve heard some iteration of the urban myth where a group of friends waits in the darkness to spring a surprise party on a woman only to end up catching her offering herself to her dog with peanut butter smeared on her private parts. And (while I’m in no way claiming you are one of them) I am certain more than a few people who’ve heard this allowed their thoughts to linger on the implication… But the way Vollmer’s story “Dog Lover” uses life’s dull edge to cut deep is that when the heroine acts on this particular impulse, she isn’t motivated by sexual desire or doing it just for kicks:
What she’d wanted was for Toby to understand, to realize it wasn’t about peanut butter but about pleasing her, about doing something her husband had never done, not once, not even mentioned, which wouldn’t be that big of a deal if they were close, but they weren’t, and might never be, at least not like she and Toby.
Here is a woman with a gaping need to test if her dog might be able to fulfill her more intimately than her husband on every level. She is searching for escape through her one true connection with another living creature. Throughout the collection, Vollmer’s audacious characters possess this kind of endearing fragility when it comes to navigating the callous world around them.
In the world of Advanced Placement scores, however, when an AP Reader gives a student’s essay a dash it now indicates that it was an entirely blank response. But I rather enjoy Vollmer’s original definition, and if I had to rate Gateway to Paradise, which in a way I am, I would definitely give it a dash. Not because the collection is awful or superfluous – indeed, it is just the opposite – but for the precise way these stories convey how so much of our existence doesn’t make sense. Yet, day after day, people struggle to find strange, funny, and often tragic new ways to prove that they do exist.
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Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons is a writer, teacher, and storyteller. Earning her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University, she combined her love for theater and writing to create the “switched-up” storytelling series, No, YOU Tell It! Each NYTI storyteller writes a true-life tale and then flips scripts with a partner to present each other’s story. More info and podcast at noyoutellit.com. Follow her @KJ_Fitzsimmons