I’ve been reading the stories of Matthew Simmons for years now. The first thing I remember learning about him was how he used to be in a one-man black metal band called Fire in My Bag. I’ve never actually heard any of Fire in My Bag’s music, which somehow makes it bigger and grosser, composed of any possible sound.
Trying to imagine what would come out of one friendly bearded guy with glasses simultaneously shredding five instruments is a surprisingly good analogy for the texture of Matthew’s writing. I’ve always felt it’s very difficult to relate emotion in short stories without coming off sentimental or cheesy—not to mention boring. But Simmons walks a very certain kind of line, sometimes taking a reflective texture that shows up in certain modes of David Foster Wallace, and an attitude like George Saunders or Lorrie Moore. You feel close to his narrators even as you watch them fumbling to feel close to anybody, to make sense of what and where they are, how anyone could love them. Simmons has a rare gift for bringing a familiarity to any sort of outcast human: skaters, conspiracy theorists, undergrads, RPG enthusiasts, weird dads… For instance, here’s an e-book he wrote about a guy who only dates caves.
And now, at last, Simmons’s first full-length collection of stories, Happy Rock, has come to light. It’s full of as many surprising modes and tones as you could ask for from a story collection, both refreshing and surprising in how much range it can cover in such a short space.
By way of an example, here’s an excerpt taken from the middle of a story about a guy who kills himself after listening to Rush.
Excerpt from the story “Honey” from Happy Rock
Do you hear music? I hear music for some reason. Is there music?
Where were we? Oh, yes. More clearly than anything else from my life before, I remember this. I remember a haircut.
I sat on a folding chair on the back porch. I was under a rain poncho, under which was a ratty comforter—chewed through all over by a bored or frustrated or possibly fiber-craving cat. Michael’s cat, Pizza. My older cousin's cat. And I shivered and I shivered.
It was five below zero. Colder with the wind. And there was wind. There was plenty of wind. It was cold, and from the last day's dusting of snow—too cold for a real, heavy, thick snow—the flakes were small and solid, and whipped around in little sparkling white funnels. I was with Michael, and he was cutting my hair.
He would not cut hair in the kitchen, even in the depths of winter: “I really, really don’t want hair getting in my food,” he'd say. He would not cut hair in the bathroom, even in the depths of winter: “I know you can sweep up, but you just can’t get all the little strays, and I don’t want to get hair stuck all over the bottom my feet after I shower. Willies, dude.”
He would only cut hair on the porch, even in the depths of winter. So, heavy coats, comforter, poncho. And, for him, winter gloves. Heavy winter gloves and scissors with large handles to fit clumsy, gloved fingers.
He said: “The thing about a really good haircut is that a really good haircut is one that lasts much longer than a few weeks or a couple of months. It doesn’t just look okay when you get it done. As it grows out, it still looks good—just in a different way. Like it was cut to grow out. That’s what a good haircut does.”
He said: “This is not a good haircut.”
I replied: “That’s OK. It just needs to hold out for a couple of weeks. Work complained.” He cut. We talked.
He said: “You know that metal band, Celtic Frost? You know if you play a Celtic Frost CD after midnight, the devil comes? Or sends like a proxy demon to you? My brother played Into the Pandemonium by them once, and he said he watched the red power light on the stereo turn into an eye. And then it talked to him. About meditation.”
I replied: “Your brother shoots Robitussin for dinner. Instead of eating food, he drinks Robitussin. Right from the bottle. All night.”
He answered: “That just means he maybe has access to a part of the mind we all tend to usually turn off. That’s all that means.”
I said: “My grandfather has gotten to the point where now he no longer yells at the TV about the fact that he thinks there’s a Communist in the White House. He doesn’t even mention it to me when I visit him. And this has all happened in just the last couple of months.”
He replied: “My dad’s getting older. He doesn’t walk as well.”
I answered: “He sometimes gets this completely empty look in his eye and no televised Democrat can shake him from it. I go to visit and I just want him to yell 'pinko' at one of the Clintons so I know he's in there.”
He said: “You know, the Nazis spent most of their real time and resources trying to conquer death. Not Europe. It's true. The inner circle was all occultists. Himmler. Goebbels. I read on the internet that Hitler said he wanted to grab God by his throat and shake him until he snapped his neck. That the Nazis were planning to build this new Tower of Babel to attack Heaven eventually. That’s why they were into rockets.”
I replied: “I don't remember reading that. I just remember all the stuff about the war and the invasions and death camps.”
He answered: “Yeah, that all sucked, too, apparently.”
I said: “I guess currently I know only two couples on the verge of divorce, which has got to be some sort of record for lowest number of divorces among my friends and family. They both have kids this time, though. That's something.”
He replied: “I used to get laid sometimes at weddings because of all the drinking. If they had some sort of divorce ceremony with an open bar, I'd be into twice as much trim.”
I answered: “You usually use the word 'tail.' 'Trim' is a new one for you. Nice.”
He said: “Did you ever see that Caligula movie the Hustler guy made? Where that old guy offs himself in that hot tub because he thinks there's a better world somewhere else. One without all the sodomy and murder or whatever. And, like, if he dies, he's not throwing his life away, but showing that he has hope for some other world.”
I didn't reply. I just thought about how nice that sounded. And wondered why it sounded nice. And I shivered a lot, too. It got colder and darker, and he sped through the last of the haircut, leaving some longer bits on the back of my neck.
When he was done, I gave him the two five dollar bills in my wallet. He let the wind sweep the porch. We carried his kitchen chair back inside and fit it beneath the kitchen table. On my way out, he told me to grab the bag near the door.
“That's for you. I found you a copy of Signals at this garage sale in Iron Mountain when me and Liz went up to visit her folks.”
“Is it in good shape?”
“It was a dollar,” he said. “I didn't check.”
“Why were they selling it?”
“Who the hell asks 'why' at a garage sale, Chad?”
“K,” I said.
“Maybe they listen to CDs like everybody else, Chad.”
“K,” I said. “I'm going to get going.”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, you are.”
“K,” I said. “Later.”
“Seriously,” he said. “Leave.”
And I did. And I went home. An OK haircut, my last one. Could've been worse. And I didn't need it long.
I went home and I put Signals on my turntable. I listened to it alone. Because, as I said before. Dot. Dot. Dot. I listened to “Subdivisions,” and I listened to “The Analog Kid,” and I listened to “Chemistry,” and I listened to “Digital Man.” And the song, “The Weapon,” came on.
So, my parents were good people. And my heart was never majorly broken. And my grades in school were always just fine. And my day was livable. And my nights were a little lonely, but not all that bleak. And I wasn't losing my hair. And my weight was mostly under control. And I wasn't bullied. And I had a crappy job, but everybody has a crappy job.
It's just that everywhere around me, everything kept moving. And I couldn't do anything to stop that. I'd accepted that I couldn't do anything to stop it. I just didn't really like anymore that I couldn't do anything to stop it. I imagined if I was somehow a bigger individual, maybe I'd have more control over the continuing move forward of everything. If only I was bigger.
Then a line came on in the song. “He's not afraid of your judgment / He knows of horrors worse than your hell / He's a little bit afraid of dying / But he's more afraid of…” And then the record skipped back to “… horrors worse than your hell.”
So that's it. That's when I met the man I spoke of earlier. He was dried there in the grooves of the record. I took it off the turntable and felt it with my fingertips, and felt a spot that flaked. I grabbed a paper towel and put a little water on it. I rubbed the spot, and it came up rust red. When the water melted the dried substance, it smelled a little like blood. And then a lot like blood when I held it to my nose. It was the man crossing my path and giving me a message. Conspiring with everything else to give me a message. “… A little bit afraid of dying.” Only a little.
I smelled the blood and I smiled and I knew him and I used my belt to hang myself in my closet. And I hung there just filled with hope.
Previously by Blake Butler - What Are These Freaks Reading?