One of the things that I hate most about Donald Trump is that he’s completely and irrevocably changed the way that I read. Like 9/11 or the election of Barack Obama, Donald Trump’s presidency has altered the tenor and tone of entire books for me. I’ll never again be able to read a presidential biography, for example, without the specter of Trump lingering just beyond the last few pages of the book, like the punchline to a bad fart joke. Satirical novels about reality television and dystopian fictions about the collapse of America will leave a metallic taste in my mouth, probably from all the tongue-biting I’ll have to do.
This realization, that I will forever experience a pre-Trump and a post-Trump reading life, dawned on me as I read Seattle writer Matthew Simmons’s new short story collection, The In-Betweens. This particular collection is the permanent home for my favorite story by Simmons, one that I’ve heard him read a few times in the past. It’s titled “Americans after America,” and though the story contains roughly the same words in the same order as it has always had, it has shifted so dramatically that I can’t quite remember how it made me feel before November of 2016.
“Americans after America” begins, as many of Simmons’s stories do, with a short, declarative sentence: “And so there came a day when, as one, the Americans arrived at a thought.” And that thought is:
…the Americans decided that, after all the years of American history (which they had acquired in first a handful and then a large pile of states united together for the purpose of acquiring a history) that it was time they maybe went ahead and left those states to the original owners, to let them take it back over…
In short: the American people all decide at once to up and leave America forever, to roam the world and become citizens of other countries.
“Americans,” as I recall from the times I heard Simmons read it years ago, felt like a satirical piece of speculative fiction, like something Vonnegut might have written as a Kilgore Trout story. Now, though, it feels elegiac, mournful, a sharp-elbowed reminder that we were once a nation of immigrants and that now many of us feel like nomads even though we still wake and sleep inside the same borders.
If a story can have a soul, the soul of “Americans” now feels heavy and dark and sad. The story’s claim that “the Americans were — at bottom — a just people” and “at heart — a good people” and “in a pinch — a generous people” used to feel hopeful, but now it feels like a bitter little joke. It’s as though Donald Trump muscled in next to Simmons as he wrote “Americans” and the president-elects pudgy little moisturized fingers hijacked the laptop right out from under him.
Though the tone of “Americans” has changed, it is still a terrific story. In fact, The In-Betweens is full of terrific stories. Another one of my favorites, “This Mountain I Built,” is about a man who builds a mountain in his back yard over a long weekend. It turns into a twist on a Biblical tale, and it culminates in an ending so salty you may feel as though Simmons reached out of the book and slapped you across the cheek. There’s another story about a man who trades his existence in exchange for the return of everyone who ever died, and one about a herd of tiny horses who run around a guy’s apartment, and one about someone who made a bad bargain with a witch.
Simmons is working with primal stuff: supernatural forces, naïve humans who fuck with angry magical creatures who will never, ever, ever take kindly to being fucked with. Perhaps because he’s working with the elemental materials that ancient humans used to create myth and fable, Simmons favors short, taut, repetitive sentences that keep the ideas tightly bound. In the middle of the story “Ishpeming,” in which a monster city rampages along Lake Superior, Simmons stops to check in on the powers that be:
God, who lives in the sky, ignores the entire situation, instead concentrating on a new project. He has started a band with some friends, and is on the phone trying to hustle up a gig or two in the next couple of months. The band has been getting pretty good lately, and has been practicing twice a week. God doesn’t think much of his singing voice, but the other members of the band are pretty keen on it. It’s a good time for God.
Much of Simmons’s work is interested in people whose lives are affected by forces outside their control. He writes a lot about bodies flying through glass, and car accidents. It’s very likely that he can find humor in the fact that the meanings of some of his stories have forever been changed through the accidental election of a monstrous ball of id who is trying to fill the daddy-sized hole in his soul by putting on a cheap dictator’s suit.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant