A Review of Sebastian Matthews’ Beyond Repair
September 10, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Stephen Corey
At a writers’ gathering several years ago I had picked up a few basic details of the horrific, head-on, near-fatal automobile crash endured by Sebastian Matthews, his wife, and their young son. Because Sebastian and I are acquaintances from shared attendance at such gatherings and from my having published his work several times when I was editing The Georgia Review, I looked forward to learning more from his Beyond Repair: Living in a Fractured State. And I did learn, but most of the more was quite other than I had anticipated.
The opening pages of this literally small volume—more on that in a moment—were in line with what I had assumed the whole would be doing: providing the frightening insider details that only Sebastian could give, and then offering some anecdotal reports on the various stages of his and his wife’s years-long recovery process. (Their son, eight at the time, was in the backseat and remarkably spared all but seatbelt burns.) However, Beyond Repair quickly widens to engage multiple aspects of its cagey subtitle—Living in a Fractured State—and becomes thereby a study in which Matthews essentially sets aside his own physical trauma to focus on the ways it heightened and deepened his awareness of, and concern about, the social and political damages America has been enduring in recent years.
Beyond Repair is small in various ways—and bear with me as I give you some numbers, because they lead to a crucial point. This is a 5×8 paperback, and its count of 160 pages includes thirteen of front matter, fifteen blanks, eighteen holding only visual images or brief quotes from other sources, and a half-dozen that hold a handful or fewer lines of Matthews’ own text.
So, within about one hundred “actual” pages Beyond Repair gives us just over sixty taut essays, with the longest—that opener I mentioned—going just four-plus, and with more than thirty of the vignettes complete on a single page (and ten of those within a half-page). Also, Matthews’ titles seem to be seeking the same quick hits as his essays—twenty-eight bear a single word, fifteen more just two—as if, perhaps, he wants to try giving all his post-accident observations and thoughts the same unexpected and intense feel as the crash itself.
This would be impossible in a literal sense, of course, and would belittle the suffering endured by the two adults, so it’s an approach to the book’s structural elements that may well be more mine than his. But there is that term fractured in the subtitle, so I’m comfortable giving the writer credit for leading me along.
Racial and social-class tensions are the ones most consistently present in Matthews’ observations and concerns, whether blatantly in the muscle-flexing of “White Men in Trucks” or more nuanced via some small, multiracial/multiclass sparks flying in the neighborhood laundromat of “Quarter.” The tentacles of political stance unavoidably reach into the book as well, and these broader topics ended up pulling me along as much as, and then even more than, Sebastian’s long-range recovery from his brutal injuries.
White guy though I be, I have come to have a very diverse family over the decades. A number of years after having two daughters of our own, my wife (also white) and I adopted two more daughters, one from South Korea, the other from Peru—and their eventual partner choices have yielded us grandchildren who have added black and Hispanic strains to our inner circle. I’m neither innocent enough nor arrogant enough to claim too much about these facts, especially when Matthews overhears a young black writer say during a mostly-white-attendee conference, “‘They’re well-meaning, with their Black Lives Matter signs on their yards, but, really, they don’t know how to act around people of color.’” Still, none of us know as much as we need to know about people who are not ourselves, and too many of us fail to recognize that fact—and I’m grateful to Matthews for reminding me of this while he reminds himself.
Place and point of view are fluid in Beyond Repair: often we are told where we are, but not always; the dominant pronoun for the narrator is I, but with an irregular regularity you or he or we drops in. Further—and I mean this as an odd but definite praise—the entire work exhibits a fluidity that could be a weakness in many books. I’m not saying I don’t think Matthews gave careful consideration to the placement of the sixty-three individual essays, as well as to his division of the nine sections whose essay-count is an almost-obsessive-seeming 9-9-9-4-4-9-9-9-1. Rather, I believe he is recognizing the slippery-fish nature of his explorations, and thereby confronting the central contradiction of his effort:
Some readers may well ask whether the fractures in this book’s movement are spot-on, or an avoidance of full enough commitment to the healing that often seems to be the truest of Sebastian Matthews’ intentions, or a mixture of these and other results. I believe he offers what Poe would have termed a “purloined guide,” waiting until two-thirds of the way through the book to clue us directly about something we may or may not have been picking up on our own: in “Walking Lubbock” (which he is doing literally with a friend), Matthews susses out his dilemma and his search for a solution:
I worry aloud that our world has moved “beyond repair.” Curtis pushes back on the thought.
Is anything really ever beyond repair? I try to explain myself. I mean, why even try to repair something so broken? We bat the idea around. Maybe it’s not about systemic failure—as in That car is dead, it’s beyond repair—but, instead, about something transformational—as in, We need to move beyond repair. Not trying to fix something but overhauling the whole system.
Throwing everything out and starting again.
However, we are not looking at “the answer” here. Twenty pages further along Matthews forces himself to confront the word of Clinton J. Moyer in a Huffington Post article: “This, my white friends, is privilege. Even in our most activist moments, we don a cause like a fashionable hat, briefly, briefly, until we exhaust our emotional reserves.” Matthews is hit hard by this reminder of the inherent privilege he cannot entirely work off or wish away, but he cannot (and should not) set aside the fact that he bears another weight, that of the nearly-died, which has become a strong assistant to his search for fairness and decency at as many turns as possible.
In the earlier mentioned “Quarter,” Matthews watches (and hears) as the laundromat attendant pours a “steady cascade” of coins from one unlocked dryer box after another.
“I always try to listen . . .” she puts a finger up to her ear, tapping it lightly, “. . . for that sound . . .”
I smile at her, though not sure yet what she means.
“. . . I listen for that one silver sound.” She turns back to her work. “One quarter is usually pure silver, you know.”
Key in slot, the box slid out, dumped in the tub.
I listen for the silver sound but can only hear the dull roar of coins dropping from their chute.
Believing as I do in the centrality of smart metaphor as one of the keys to creating distinctive and effective writing, I have come to sense this quiet late scene in Beyond Repair—only four more essays follow it—as a crucial entryway to Sebastian Matthews’ understanding of how far he has come and how much farther he has to travel. His near-death experience brought him to a new intensity of awareness about a broad range of the experiences of others around him, but not to any quick-won answers to the questions that awareness raises. I strongly suspect that he will be walking other streets in other Lubbocks, seeking and finding some progression of answers in essays longer or—who can say?—even shorter.
Stephen Corey is the author of ten poetry collections and, most recently, Startled at the Big Sound: Essays Personal, Literary, and Cultural (Mercer University Press, 2017). In the spring of 2022, White Pine Press will publish his As My Age Then Was, So I Understood Them: New and Selected Poems, 1981-2022. In 2019, he retired as editor of The Georgia Review, with which he worked for thirty-six years.