Book Review: Attention Please Now by Matthew Pitt
Baseball has been a fixation in all aspects of American culture, perhaps most potently in literature. There is something deeply poetic about the stop-and-go momentum of baseball games and the romanticized innocence of childhood that comes with it. Matthew Pitt, in his collection’s title story, essentially bucks any of this childish romanticism. The story is narrated by a cynical, alcoholic announcer who gives inspiration to the band of misfit players by publicly discussing their most embarrassing moments. To put it lightly, all of the characters are selfish and unsympathetic. Yet Pitt has such a mastery of specific vocabulary (the batter spits a “slug of chaw”) that his view into this world of baseball, however morally murky it may be, is nonetheless enticing. And the final, emotionally charged moment is the perfect pay-off, bringing the bittersweet reality of family to the forefront.
Yet despite the intense portrait of a small-town that could easily sustain more exposition, the stories shift constantly to new, engaging worlds. While they sometimes feel trite (“Wanted: Rebel Anthem”), when Pitt gives himself a leisurely easel to explore the background, it is crafted beautifully, such as the beautiful yet difficult undeveloped island that sets the stage for “The Whole World Over.”
The perceivable connection between these stories is, most bluntly, dysfunction. Each story displays fissures between characters’ feelings and their actions, what they can say and what they want/need to do. This conflict is displayed clearest in “Goes Without Saying,” where the barrier between an agent for a music label and his deaf son is explored. Yet this eventually becomes exhausting, with a suite of stories particularly disheartening. Nearly every marriage in this collection is completely dysfunctional. While this can be portrayed elegantly, as in the slow burning “The Whole World Over,” it often feels like an exhausted source of tension. In “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions,” the narrator is too much to bear, first wrongly accusing his wife of cheating, then abandoning her. While unsympathetic narrators can often be compelling, Benny’s motivations are never expressed clearly, and the awkward question and answer portions don’t help.
The strange and humorous “Au Lieu de Fleurs” is a surprising delight amid all this domestic conflict. This quirky story moves from a café serving only soup that “smelled of clams and sewer,” to a clown’s funeral, to a park’s public bathroom, yet ultimately celebrating the compassion and talkative nature of the charming narrator.
Despite the sometimes monotonous plotting, Pitt’s dense and often striking writing is a constant. A recurring, ghostly dog’s gait in the first story is described “like some prisoner at sea walking the plank, with fierce, final dignity.” And in “Observing the Sabbath,” after a character severs a relationship by cutting the phone line, “the exposed wire was the color of a hamstring.” In this way, reading Attention Please Now can be a consistent pleasure, with Pitt’s writing guiding the reader through even the most uncomfortable territory. And Pitt often finds the humanity within these stories. The final story, “Kokomo,” is a perfect example. In brief, it is a fairly standard apocalypse tale, but the powerful mother-son bond it portrays elevates the story beyond its plot.
Much of Attention Please Now feels familiar: marital strife, the bond between parents and children, the baseball field. But, as the title demands, the power in this collection is in the details, in the intricacies of the writing, and the tiny beautiful moments that punctuate these lovely stories.