Mat Twassel is that most unfortunate of combinations--the self-effacing self-publisher. In an e-mail exchange the other month, he was startled to find out that I was one of the two people who'd bought his book. "How did you happen to hear of it?" he wanted to know. I don't know if sales have picked up since then, but you can be confident that buying your own copy will make you part of an extremely small fraternity.
The first thing you notice about the stories in Laura's Toes is that they're short--very short. Most are under a page.
The next thing is the bubbling exuberance of the language. Mat's narration spills over with vivid similes and playful alliteration . His images of innocent (mostly) sexuality are bright, vivid, and surprisingly hot. His sentences are almost child-like, not just in their simplicity but in their clear-eyed, unaffected honesty. Mat covers a broad range of distinct styles in this little book, but his own voice remains unmistakable throughout.
Something like half of Mat's shorts are about his unabashed and carnal adoration for his wife, Laura. As delightful as those stories are, he can be even more impressive when he reaches out into stranger territory. One of my favorites in the book is Lucky Girl in the Fifth at Hialeah. Attempting to summarize an eighteen-line story is absurd, so suffice it to say that he packs enough storytelling, characterization, and bizarre plot hooks into that piece for a novel, and without ever seeming hurried.
Mat reminds me a little of newspaper cartoonist Pat MacDonnell. Each produces work with a surface simplicity that can conceal, at first, the subtlety, sophistication, and sincerity that goes into their work. There's a fifth 's' that goes into their storytelling that many less-confident writers avoid: sentiment. Both are unafraid to show strong emotion without ironic distance (though they're capable of biting irony as well).
Like McDonnell, Mat often structures his potent emotions around sly formal games, turning his stories on a pun or a reference. Without the hook, his stories could tip over into insipid sweetness--"flabby," as the wine critics say. With it, the story coheres, with a perfect balance of astringent intellect and sugary emotion.
Take Oceans of Time, for example. It's a charming, sexy little story in itself, responding to his wife's orgasm as if it were a piece of music. However, in the context of the quote that inspired it, its ingenuity is revealed, and the whole thing comes together in a vastly more satisfying way.