The epiphanies we have in childhood are often the ones we remember most clearly. Years after their conception, we find ourselves again and again returning to the moments that define us as adults: seeing one’s parents intoxicated for the first time, standing up to the neighborhood bully, learning how to lie convincingly. Despite all efforts to “mature” — a word that falls hopelessly short of describing what it means to grow up — we unfailing recall these moments with an odd mixture of embarrassment and warm familiarity.
The characters in Matthew Vollmer’s Future Missionaries of America, like our deeply-engrained childhood memories, are uncomfortably familiar. They are the dirty old men behind the bar, the hormonal teenagers, the drunken, gambling fathers. They are those sad, strange encounters on the boardwalk or at the park, the awkward conversations at the bank; they are unavoidable. Vollmer’s characters — more so than the twisted plotlines, the quirky settings — stand out, ironically, because of their normalcy.
Ranging from schizophrenics to bartenders to frustrated adolescents, the characters in Future Missionaries of America together form a literary palette of American pariahs, a collection of eccentric outcasts perhaps a little too overwhelming to handle in a single read. Vollmer seems to find much of his material in the tempestuous and fickle lives of 20-somethings, whose predictable issues with relationships, acceptance, and risk-taking are all highlighted by way of rather unpredictable settings, such as midwestern entomology labs and Adventist boarding schools.
It is easy to see why Vollmer, who seems to have spent a great deal of time in a collegiate environment, chooses college as a focal point for many of his stories. A former undergraduate of the University of North Carolina, he is currently an instructor of English at Virginia Tech University, and a recent graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Future Missionaries of America is his first complete set of short stories, though individual stories have been published in the Paris Review, Epoch, and Colorado Review. Here in combined form, the stories that together create Future Missionaries of America are strangely connected, seeming to have been written with purposeful and subtle similarity instead of individually.
But it is this vague sense of likeness that tends to work against Vollmer’s stories. Like a throng of aging punk rockers at a Sex Pistols reunion concert, the characters all seem to possess the same type of aggressively apathetic outlook on life. Complacent introspection is as dramatic as it gets, as seen in one of his more eccentric stories, “Stewards of the Earth”:
“In the downstairs bathroom, she found a dead leaf. She looked at it hard. It wasn’t a dead leaf. It was a dead mouse head. It was looking right at her. She waited for it to speak. It didn’t.”
In contrast, the offstage action in Vollmer’s stories tends to get quite violent. In “Man O’War,” a young woman is killed by a man o’war stingray in Mexico; a little girl is brutally raped and murdered in “Bodies”; the emotionally-lost father in “Straightedge” resorts to drugs and prostitutes when his home life doesn’t quite work out. Yet none of these graphic details are included in the direct narrative of Future Missionaries of America, permitting a sense of quiet disturbance and perversion to seep through the loosely-woven stories.
Aside from this not-so-subtle indirectness, Vollmer manages to give his characters each incredibly unique voices, working with slang and witticisms that he undoubtedly picked up somewhere in his academic career.
“The fist few weeks of class, we didn’t talk, despite the fact that he sat right in front of me,” he writes in the title story. “I assumed that because he wore Izod and Polo and never once turned around to say bonjour that he was a stuck-up a-hole — a dude who had a Carolina-blue brick road paved straight to a frat house date rape.”
Though the language is at times a little overdone, it nevertheless a defining feature of each story. From Kevin’s unhurried drawl in “Freebleeders” to the unbearably snarky narrator in “Will & Testament,” it is the style of each voice that makes an impact, not the unconventional settings. There would have been nothing significant about the House of Doughnuts in “Bodies”, were it not accompanied by the semi-raving lunatic narration. It is as if Vollmer is trying to impress us with as many tricks he can find up his sleeve, not quite understanding that his major strength lies in the style of writing itself.
For the most part, Future Missionaries of America is a quick and easy, if slightly bewildering, read. Vollmer tends to fashion tiny hopes out of practically nothing, making the endings of each story unclear as to whether the protagonist gained or lost something of importance. In many cases, these hopes manifest themselves in the forms of awkward and pathetic beauty, offering readers philosophical and spiritual enlightenment instead of comfort or relief.
“We were, I’m sure, a sight to behold,” Vollmer writes in the final scene of “Bodies”. “Two withered creatures, laboring and laboring, blind with the belief we might make something new.”