When we speak of a story as “voice-driven,” that typically means it’s written in first person and that the narrator has attitude. Instead of quietly striving towards general objectivity, the narrator—à la Holden Caulfield—gives us a unique angle on the world that keeps our eyes fixed to the page. Matt Sumell, in his story “All Lateral” from One Story, shows us some compelling ways in which that’s done.
From the opening sentence, Sumell’s language is oddly constructed and unpolished, creating a sense of a character who is brash and informal: “Consider the look on Whatsherface’s face when I bought her a well drink and told her I lived on a sailboat.” The narrator isn’t interested in political correctness, nor impressing us with lyricism. He simply doesn’t care—or at least it appears that way.
Nor is he interested in being polite. Sumell’s narrator is the antithesis of a Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People disciple, and wonderfully so. Notice the line of argument he takes with Whatsherface at the San Pedro bar when they begin arguing the relative merits of cats:
“‘Look,’ I said. ‘I didn’t tell you about the drowned cat to make the argument that cats as a species are bad swimmers, but they are bad swimmers. What they’re good at is murderous rampages. Not only do their turds cause birth defects and mental problems, but cats spend all night looking for small animals to kill. For fun. They don’t even eat most of them.’”
In the first two pages the narrator manages to offend women and cat-lovers and pretty much anyone else with a finger on the pulse of societal norms. I could guarantee that, were this the topic of a writing workshop, at least one reader would bring up that nebulous term, “likeability.” But here’s the thing: Sumell is getting at something important with his narrator. The nicest, most polite people are sometimes the toughest to trust. Big smiles can feel manipulative. The truth is we trust the narrator because he’s impolite and politically incorrect. He’s not beholden to conventional wisdom or manners. He takes his own counsel. And he’s unflinchingly honest—even when examining himself:
“Jason barked at a feral cat slinking along the gate. It reminded me of Whatsherface and Whatsherface’s face when I told her about my job, and just like that I was back to overwhelming boredom and despair, restlessness and worry, the feeling that I should quit the dock and put my favorite shirts in a bag and move in a hard straight line toward the horizon, any horizon, because it had to be better than this piece of shit one right here…”
There’s a humility to the narrator’s posture, even if it’s sometimes hidden by the bravado of the voice. The contrarian, counter-cultural combines with that self-deprecating truth-teller. Sumell connects the brazen and the bighearted. It’s what makes people love The Catcher in the Rye. And “All Lateral” has it in spades.