Gateway to Paradise: Stories
by Matthew Vollmer
Persea Books. 2015.
‘What is Paradise?’ Matthew Vollmer’s unified story collection, Gateway to Paradise begs to explore. With symbols and motifs dating back to Eden, Vollmer aptly juxtaposes verdant beauty with the garish, honky-tonk nature of tourism, thus creating a complex emotional terrain that vacillates between absurdly funny and deeply disturbing as his characters encounter desire.
Comprised of six linked narratives set in Southern Appalachia – beginning and ending at Gatlinburg – Vollmer presents characters positioned to act upon carnal longings. Rather than face anticipated external consequences, Vollmer’s characters are plagued by internal castigation, in which Vollmer deftly depicts all that is at stake.
In the lead off story “Downtime” a dentist on a romantic getaway encounters recurring visions of his deceased wife, in turn impregnating the ghost of his mind; in “Probation” a man lands punishment for laser-lighting a plane but faces internal penance for abuse overlooked; in “The Visiting Writer” a married professor desires the alluring writer he escorts to town; in ”Dog Lover” a woman conducts an experiment to determine who loves her most: husband or dog; in “Scoring” a sexual encounter has an unexpected outcome and life altering consequences. In the culminating story, “Gateway to Paradise” a controlling boyfriend sets his girlfriend up as an accomplice to a murder from which they flee, resulting in her striking epiphany: She will save herself.
Vollmer’s characters are idiosyncratic: A controlling boyfriend with no conscious trapped a wasp and “tossed it outside” to live (131), a writer – once sexually deviant – presents as neurotic in person. Such character dichotomies round Vollmer’s protagonists in a manner that builds suspense in his readership.
In addition to smart character twists, Vollmer’s narratives and the whole-book structure make Gateway to Paradise soar. Ordered so precisely, conflicts emerge in recurring settings, thus linking this compendium such that later stories hold more emotional resonance. Changing rooms titillate, ghosts haunt, and fruit and fudge sicken the next time around, leading to a brilliant depiction of ‘paradise’ in the book’s final form.
While Vollmer’s collection aptly represents his characters and illustrates ‘paradise’ as a theme in many guises, the ‘desire’ presented herein seems rooted in sex and money – in other words – they are built upon what characters can “get.” While a smart strategy with the demographics portrayed of the book, additional human drives might add dimension as the aforementioned motivations alone are often manifest in stereotypical males. Despite, Matthew Vollmer’s Gateway to Paradise presents as a strategically written smartly linked collection that is artfully constructed.