January 2009

Annie Kennedy

fiction

Future Missionaries of America: Stories by Matthew Vollmer

A young waiter speeds through Yellowstone National Park, his legs fueled by the thoughts of his recently deceased friend and the solace he will find in the bed of the friend’s girlfriend. A teenager digs a hole with a devastating letter from his girlfriend stashed in his back pocket. A man leaves messages on his dead wife’s voicemail. Matthew Vollmer trounces his protagonists with anguish through his debut short story collection, Future Missionaries of America .

Vollmer assembles a diverse cast of characters: a woman who pretends to be gay, a father who doesn’t understand why his son is straight-edge, a college student who has visions of the bloody head of John the Baptist -- and treats them so mercilessly you would think he had studied the human mind with the sole intent of backing it into a corner and cruelly shoving death, broken promises, and heartache into every recess. Yet one cannot detest Vollmer for the pain he inflicts upon his characters because he does it with a mixture of humor and elegance. No character suffers unduly, and every one of them has the ability to either cope with or drag themselves out of their mess.

In the collection’s opener, “Oh Land of National Paradise, How Glorious Are Thy Bounties,” Harper, clad in waiter-wear and name tag, bursts out of the inn he works at and takes off into the night; the wonders of Yellowstone National Park are blurred by the fact that his best friend, Wes, has just died. As Harper runs, his regrets build: he hadn’t spent much time with Wes lately, maybe he could have prevented his death, and, most importantly, that he is running straight into Abby, Wes’ girlfriend’s, arms. Later, as they lie naked on her floor, Abby runs her fingers through Harper’s hair while he contemplates the idea that the best way to live life is to not know how to describe it. While Vollmer fills Harper’s head with the kind of guilt that only can come with sleeping with your dead buddy’s girlfriend, he ultimately allows the man’s uncertainty to work in his favor, leaving him with a contentment that may not last but will do just fine for now.

In “Freebleeders,” Kevin, a recent college graduate, takes a seven-dollar an hour job at the Francis Owen Blood Research Lab, an animal testing facility. In between making friends with puppies and holding down pigs while they are injected with poison, he keeps a postcard correspondence with Michelle, a pretty waitress he met a few weeks ago. When Michelle unexpectedly arrives in Raleigh, the two begin a short relationship filled with awkward sex (he can’t keep an erection and she cries a lot) and, eventually, a puppy. When Michelle leaves, Kevin heads back to his job, only to find that his puppy friends were euthanized. Here, Vollmer packs a one-two punch by not giving Kevin any lasting fulfillment: both his girl and his animal compatriots leave him, but there remains an odd sense of closure when Kevin realizes that keeping both of them around would have been utterly impossible.

The collection's best story gives the book its title. It deals with the narrator's relationship with her friend Melashenko, who's also her secret crush, a hardcore Seventh-day Adventist, and her Pregnancy Education partner. The two exchange daily letters, slowly exposing their carefully guarded emotions to the other, as well as caring for Beth, an infant simulator. When the narrator has to stay at Melashenko’s house due to a snowstorm, both their friendship and his religious beliefs are jeopardized in an unbelievably embarrassing intimate moment. While Vollmer definitely uses the automatically mortifying card (those silly teens can never have sex without some kind of debacle), he pushes the envelope by putting them on the brink of utter disaster. The narrator is forced to deal with the pressure of taking her friend’s virginity, which is meant for one person and one person only, a person she knows she cannot be, while Melashenko puts his beliefs aside for one tender moment and must deal with the repercussions of their decision once the moment passes. What these two have on their side, though, is their youth. Vollmer has scarred two vulnerable minds, but what he has allowed them is the room to grow up and move on, something every person, fictional or not, must do.

In twelve stories, Vollmer pushes both his characters and his readers to the point of total hopelessness. At times, we are thrown to the lions just as much as the people we are reading about, but instead of leaving us behind, the author steps in at just the right time with an offering of oftentimes bizarre relief. No matter how peculiar that relief may be, though, we are able to welcome it all the same.          

Future Missionaries of America: Stories by Matthew Vollmer
MacAdam/Cage
ISBN: 1596923121
250 Pages