Carve Review: Permanent Exhibit by Matthew Vollmer

Around the time I finished high school, men in US Postal Service jerseys started popping up around town. At the nearby lake you would find little clusters of them riding together, what seemed like older men hunched over handlebars as they churned uphill and turned to chat along the downhills. With sinewy calves and slight paunches, they struck me as something slightly wrong with the universe, like a weird aberration that had seeped into modern reality. Men their age were not, by and large, popping up around city parks to play basketball while dressed, head to toe, as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. They were not appearing on chamber baseball fields while dressed like Derek Jeter or Jorge Posada. Adults do not, for the most part, and thankfully, dress like pro athletes and then participate in recreational sports. But they were. They were riding their bicycles in the roads, dressed like Lance Armstrong and his government sponsored compatriots. At eighteen years old, and at a time when I hated suburbia more than anything, I could think of nothing worse. It was bland. It was boring. But above all, it was the living embodiment of the hollow bourgeois lifestyle that I had come to despise.

Fast forward fifteen years and I’m stepping out of my apartment, dressed helmet to clip in spandex, realizing my uniform’s color scheme looks reminiscent of the Michael Keaton era Batman: black helmet and glasses, black jersey with a yellow stripe across the chest; black shorts, socks, and shoes. In the last four months alone I have suggested Tim Krabbé’s short book The Rider to no fewer than five friends. Just the other day, by choice, I watched the Road World Race Championships, and I nearly screamed at the TV when a woman accidentally followed a car off the race course instead of sprinting the last 100 meters through the finish line. And for a period of time—thankfully now passed—I found myself, during breaks from grading papers, scrolling through websites of Australian and French outfitters to look at exorbitantly expensive riding jerseys, none of which I will, or could, ever buy. So it seems I have, to my own chagrin, become everything I imagined those US Postal Service enthusiasts to be.

But what, if anything, does morphing into something you once mocked mean? Philosophically, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s an appropriate phrase I could look up—a theory just for what I’m feeling—but at the moment, it eludes me. I suppose if I live long enough to trip into some unexplainable time warp, a younger me might appear, and I will be able to ask myself. No doubt I will finding myself just as ridiculous as I did before. Perhaps science will make this possible. But then again, I hope the older me will be dead by then. Either way, I can confidently say the older me would not care, save for the brief moment of anxiety I occasionally feel when challenged in life—a climbing of my stomach to my throat, a brief weakness in the left knee—before my more practical and quickly aging mind steps in to survey the scenario, take stock, and conclude that no physical threat is present. This doesn’t happen often, but I notice it now. My mind has crossed a threshold from anxious to what’s the worst that can happen?, and the worst that can happen is always a brief moment of embarrassment that will pass. This, I suspect, is one of the many things my father was talking about when he would shake his head and say, “One day you’ll see.”

While these are misplaced thoughts I’ve had for a while, I couldn’t firmly articulate them until I read Matthew Vollmer’s new book of nonfiction, Permanent Exhibit. Through many chapters of semi stream-of-conscious, semi episode-drive essays, Vollmer puts himself on display, orienting us in his mind as his body carries us from episode to episode, driving the reader along the halls of his life, showing us the exhibits that will be permanent so long as he exists. Occasionally Vollmer jumps on his own bike and leads us to the farmers market or his teaching gig at Virginia Tech, but the journey always incorporates much more than the simple saddling up. Vollmer’s collection can’t be easily defined, and in a way, I think he probably likes it that way. The open-ended form and chapters allow Vollmer to touch on exactly what concerns him at any given time, even jumping from a current scene to a completely divergent thought—something you would dissuade a composition student from ever doing. But it works.

The book opens: “2016 and homes are still being raided for marijuana. Tropical Smoothie Café opened in Blacksburg today. Another black man was shot by police.” And follows up with a brief reference to President Trump on the second page. If Vollmer is guilty of anything, he is guilty of juxtaposing the lethal with the trivial, the righteous with the sacrilegious, and making the reader connect those moments to the same in their own lives. “The sight of the American flag,” Vollmer says, “I’m unashamed to say, does not fill me with hope,” nor would I expect it to when a reasonable, thoughtful person puts their consciousness on display in Today America. Like so many of us, Vollmer is obsessed with the everyday occurrences that provide him immediate feedback, the small joys or indignities that make each day unique from the one that came before it, but it is all connected, like the smallest, most faint stars in the sky, to the enormous constellations that we can all see with the naked eye.

And while American itself is on display in this book, the sections that resonate the most are embedded with the type of personal interactions that make any pleasurable work of literature come alive. In the chapter “Stay Woke,” Vollmer lays awake while mentally attempting to respond to a student’s email, one in which a young woman has asked for a letter of recommendation, but goes on to ask if the author has ever “felt completely lonely and heartsick when [he] realized that someday we would all die.” And while Vollmer never fully articulates his answer, he implies one two chapters later in “Night Thoughts,” when he points out that “Most of us, however, will remain, as ever, somewhat troubled—if not downright afraid—by the thought of our eventual demise,” but that if we wait it out, if we float along that thought as gently as the tide comes in, then we might find “solace” in something easier, like a Justin Bieber song.

In perhaps the most impactful chapter for young writers, Vollmer relives the relationship he had with a former writing professor of his that became a mentor—a relationship that his wife felt was somewhat unhealthy. While the unnamed instructor provided the author with ample encouragement over his early career, the relationship takes a nasty turn when the mentor accuses the mentee of stealing a prop in one of his short stories. For any young writer, the subconscious “stealing” of art can weigh heavy on the mind—Did I come up with that because I read it somewhere? Is this scene too reminiscent of X author’s scene?—but Vollmer’s unintended use of a small prop, and in a completely different context (having used it due to his own experience), creates a riff that illustrates one of the author’s most realistic and heartfelt moments, showing that even prodigious writers can find themselves embroiled in the small, petty slights of others.

For those looking for a personal account of the world we live in today, and one especially through the eyes of the creative writing teacher you had that one time but didn’t get to know well enough, Vollmer’s book offers an eclectic mix of confessional writing, philosophical musings, and interesting reflections on a family, life, and career in progress. I will leave you with his words:

High on an endorphin-blast, my brain surges, and whatever sinkhole normally sucks up my gratefulness for being alive is flooded with said gratefulness, causing me to acknowledge that I’ve done nothing to earn a life as good as the one I have, where I can spend the entire summer—when I’m not mowing the lawn or washing dishes or cooking dinner or responding to email or walking the dog—riding my bike and reading books and writing, and that I love my house and town and family, and thereby pledge forevermore to be kinder to everyone, but then, once my ride’s over and I’ve showered and snacked and am driving my kid to soccer practice, I’m back to my old egocentric self, exasperated by my son’s inquisitive cheerfulness, because it’s distracting me from the news story Audie Cornish is introducing on NPR, or annoyed by the fact that my wife—who has the metabolism of a hummingbird—is crunching another dill pickle chip while I’m trying to think, which means that I have no choice but to confess that the best version of myself—because it lives only in my imagination and is thus virtual—has yet to see the light of day.

Matthew Vollmer’s essay, “Party Line,” appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Carve, and he has served as guest judge for the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest. Find Permanent Exhibit at BOA Editions.