Matthew Vollmer's newest book, Inscriptions for Headstones, is the kind of book that refreshingly resists categorization. Essays, fiction, poems. The thirty short texts, each a single sentence, each composed as an epitaph, are all of the above. Inscriptions is a book that burrows deeply. It is at turns hilarous, heartbreaking, strange, and profoundly moving.
I read the book in two nights, and the echo of its voices still rings for me. Inscriptions is a participatory book. I had the sense as I read that Vollmer invited me to join him in a cemetery where he has, somehow, given voice to the dead. The repetition of the form, the language, and the wildy different lives he captures here create something new and real. Above all, this is a book I was and remain excited about. You should be too.
We're very happy to get to run an excerpt from the book today. Read it, then buy it.
rest in peace man who at fourteen departed his home to attend a boarding school whose rules included no touching the opposite sex and no exiting the dorm after 7:30 pm and make sure you clean up your room and make your bed before room check and attend chapel twice a day and sing during song service and don’t eat meat and don’t go to movies and don’t gamble or play dice or engage in occult-type practices and don’t swear and don’t wear t-shirts with double entendre or t-shirts that promote rock and roll bands and don’t listen to rock music because Satan, i.e. Lucifer, had once been in charge of the music in heaven, had lead the angels there in singing praises to G-D, and don’t you think that he knows after six millennia of swindling human beings out of eternal life what makes them tick, meaning that if a song’s not honoring G-D, then it must be honoring the opposite of G-D, meaning Satan, a theory that sometimes could apparently be proved simply by asking the dorm chaplain to fiddle with the Auto Reverse feature on one’s Walkman, thereby allowing it to play “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, during which deceased heard quite clearly the phrase, “My sweet Satan, the one whose little path would make me sad,” a sentence which pretty clearly—at least to the deceased at the time—laid out Led Zeppelin’s Satanic agenda, though the act of hearing the lyrics in reverse didn’t exactly answer the question of whether it was okay to play the notes of “Stairway to Heaven” on one’s guitar, as they were, after all, just notes, not words, and therefore couldn’t be said to “mean” or “promote” anything in particular, though maybe if you played the notes you were in some small but not insignificant way honoring the song, but the deceased put this out of his mind and continued to play the notes of this and many other songs whose purposes had—as far as he could tell—little or nothing to do with praising G-D, at least not directly, though he figured that it could be argued that all love songs, when sung sincerely, might also be a celebration of the divine, a theory that the deceased’s roommate—who would, some years later, die of injuries he sustained after having been hit by a taxicab piloted by a drunk driver in Korea, where he had been employed in the teaching of English—often struggled, as one day he—the deceased’s roommate—would stare into the mirror and proclaim, despite the fact that his nose was way too big, that he resembled the lead singer of a new wave band he loved and the next he would chuck all his tapes into the trash or better yet burn them, imagining the whine and hiss and crackle of oxygen escaping and plastics melting were in fact the sounds that evil spirits were making as they left the cassettes, an idea that the deceased found rather preposterous, since why in the world would spirits that could conceivably go anywhere they wished or inhabit any kind of materials they wanted choose albums from the late 80s as their homes, why wouldn’t they simply shack up inside a fourteen-year-old’s body and ride it to the nearest bathroom, where, if that particular bathroom was unoccupied, that aforementioned fourteen-year-old might close his eyes and, taking hold of himself, imagine the face of the girl who worked as a grader of papers and tests for the school’s pastor, who also taught several sections of Bible, a girl who laughed whenever the deceased came to visit her, which he had occasion to do, since he had been employed by the school to be the administration building’s janitor, and thus had to wash windows and vacuum and replace urinal cakes and toilet paper and take out the trash in the pastor’s office, where he often lingered, talking to the grader about the Beatles and Michael Stipe and R.E.M. and the Smiths and New Order and the Cure, the latter of which was the deceased’s favorite band, and whose lead singer, Robert Smith—a kooky British fellow with pale skin and eyeliner and lipstick and black hair that he moussed into a ridiculous haystack on top of his head—the deceased idolized, going so far as to compose—during one of his monthly trips home—a fake news article about having been chosen to replace the singer and then finding a picture of the Cure band members as well as a picture of himself in which his head was the same size as the lead singer’s, then cutting out a photograph of his—the deceased’s—face and taping it onto the lead singer’s face and making a photocopy of this on the copier his mom kept in the sunroom of their house so that she could print church bulletins, after which the deceased sent this fake news article to the boarding school’s pastor’s grader, who was impressed and amused, as she often was, and in turn this delighted the deceased, despite the fact that he knew this girl was out of his league, this girl who wore dark shades of lipstick and had droopy-lidded eyes and wore knee-high boots with skirts that were clearly too short, a girl who had a boyfriend in college who came to visit her sometimes on weekends, which meant that the deceased could not sit beside her during Vespers, though he did once ask her to a banquet, which the school held instead of dances—dancing being sexual and hedonistic and therefore dangerous—as did a guy named Sean, who lived off campus and invited boys over on Saturdays to play hoops in his driveway and watch R-rated movies, both of which would have been frowned upon by school administrators, as the seventh day of the week had been deemed holy and as such should never become a time slot wherein one participated in any quote unquote secular activity, but in the end the girl—who prided herself on being inscrutably unpredictable—said no to Sean and yes to the deceased, who rented a tux for the occasion of traveling by bus to a church conference center at a nearby summer camp, where the gussied-up students dined upon vegetarian lasagna and toasted one another with plastic flutes of sparkling white grape juice and watched The Scarlett Pimpernel or some other movie that would offend absolutely nobody’s senses, and afterwards had their photographs taken in front of the conference center’s fireplace, and on the ride back, the deceased had wondered what it would be like to kiss this girl, and though it seemed inconceivable, he prayed that she’d make the first move, that she’d think about rewarding him for having made her laugh and having presented her this evening with a Beatles poster (as it was customary to deliver to one’s date a gift of some kind) and having purchased a boutonnière for her dress and spent over a hundred dollars on this whole banquet thing, but in the end, of course, the girl did not kiss him or place his hand on her breast and certainly did not come close to falling in love with him, though she did continue to write him mildly suggestive if not downright enigmatic notes (on yellow legal paper, with poor handwriting) during Pony Express—a Sunday night event that allowed boys to send notes to the girls, via a lucky mail carrier who was allowed to deliver them to the girl’s dorm lobby, and for the girls to reply, their perfume-spritzed letters folded in extravagant and origami-like ways the boys could never reproduce—and the deceased continued to fall for young women who were out of his league, who wanted little or nothing to do with him, who claimed they didn’t want to mess up their friendship because he was such a good friend, like a brother in fact, and though they understood that this news would disappoint him, they also made—as if granted with the powers of prophecy—a prediction, which was that someday someone—somewhere, somehow—would be lucky to have him, someday he would make a special someone very happy indeed, a sentiment that the deceased—who was prone to melancholy and heartache and skepticism, and who translated laughter and smiles and the occasional hug and even a friendly “love ya” at the end of a note as evidence of possible mutual affection—would always find difficult—if not impossible—to believe