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Future Missionaries of America

Matthew Vollmer’s impressive debut collection grates its characters against their fate, pitting their desires and their beliefs against each other as these brightly rendered tales unfold. These are well constructed, richly polished stories that rely heavily on nuanced events to deliver powerful and precise emotion. Characters struggle with sexuality, social acceptance, and death – often times through the filter of non-mainstream Christian faith. The result is an odd and heightened sense of guilt and grief.

Matthew Vollmer’s impressive debut collection grates its characters against their fate, pitting their desires and their beliefs against each other as these brightly rendered tales unfold. These are well constructed, richly polished stories that rely heavily on nuanced events to deliver powerful and precise emotion. Characters struggle with sexuality, social acceptance, and death – often times through the filter of non-mainstream Christian faith. The result is an odd and heightened sense of guilt and grief.

[D]on’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t drink caffeinated beverages, don’t swear, don’t gamble, don’t touch yourself, don’t consult mediums or talk to ghosts (because the dead are dead and ghosts are demons in disguise), don’t eat flesh foods (they arouse animal passions), don’t visit the cinema (your angel won’t follow you inside), love not the world and its diversions, Christ, and watch out for Satan, who lies always in wait and knows your every weakness.

In this way, religion in Vollmer’s Future Missionaries of America functions much as Bella Fleck’s banjo. It is a traditional instrument being used in a re-imagined capacity. Whereas many fiction writers have used religion as metaphor for structure and security, Vollmer lets religion stand as an obstacle for human interaction. His characters are affiliated with odd religious sects, and their social conflicts are compacted by these affiliations. This is not Jake Barnes escaping into a cathedral to escape drunken reverie in Hemingway’s Spain. Religion here is used to further alienate, to fuel tensions, not to establish solace.

Surprisingly, however, the stories here are not heavy reads. On the contrary, Vollmer’s diction and rhythms lend bright and airy atmospheres to his character’s lives. In “Man-O’-War,” a dentist laments the death of his bride. He floats in and out of daily routines, re-imagining his wife’s drowning after being stung by a man-o’-war on their honeymoon. But the tone is often more darkly comical than overtly dramatic. As shown here as the narrator speaks with his mother on the phone:

I don’t have the balls to tell them, Don’t come down, won’t admit I can’t stand the sight of them, so I say, Now’s not such a good time. Then, to distract Mom from further lines of questioning, all of which will no doubt lead to tears, I ask if she’s gotten the pictures, knowing she hasn’t because the pictures, or what I’m pretty sure are the pictures, are sitting on the table in the kitchen, inside a box I’m poking with a dirty fork in order to open, if possible, a little peephole. No, she says, hasn’t gotten anything, wonders if she should call the photographer, because, Ted, you paid good money for those. Ah, I say, I paid good money for a lot of things. My honeymoon, for example. Ted, she says. For instance, I say, I also recently paid good money for a man-o’-war. Silence. You know, I continue, a Portuguese man-o’-war, the invertebrate, I bought one.

But if there is a complaint to launch against Vollmer’s debut, it is that this language, necessary to a certain extent to brighten the atmosphere, can become cumbersome in certain passages. In “The Digging” for instance, the main character Kyle has been shipped off to a Seventh-Day-Adventist boarding school. He is being punished for bad behavior. The punishment is digging grave-sized holes. Hedrick, the principal of the school, arrives with cheeseburgers for lunch.

Once Hedrick’s far enough away, Kyle unfolds the bag, flicks the pickles off the patties, wolfs down the lukewarm burgers. Despite the fact that he wants to think Hedrick’s a dick, he’s thankful for the meat. Each majestically cheesy bite obliterates his tastes buds, reminds him of post Little League Happy Meals when, after the Nantahala Hawks got squashed by whoever they were playing, Kyle and his father would drive to the nearest McDonald’s to gorge themselves on burgers, fries, apple pies.

But these “majestically cheesy bite[s]” are few and far between, and generally Vollmer handles the framework of the language with subtle precision. The effect is a large hearted collection of stories that work extremely well together thematically to create a wide bodied debut. When at his best, Vollmer’s work evokes a sort of sun-colored pain. The guilt, hurt and alienation his characters deal with is somehow fresh. Somehow clean. And because of this, Future Missionaries of America deserves attention.

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