Last Acts by Alexander Sammartino


Review by George Yatchisin

If fathers and sons didn’t exist, novelists would have had to invent them. Alexander Sammartino, in his debut novel Last Acts, dishes up quite a twosome, nailing the fear, faith, and fury of filial love. David Rizzo, veteran, gunshop owner in a godforsaken Phoenix-adjacent stripmall, “had been wandering around with his head bowed, begging to be kicked in the balls if it meant he would have enough money to be recognized a decent citizen.” His addict son Nick, as the novel begins, has just been saved from an overdose. And so we will get a moment of passive-aggressive love like this, as Rizzo rails at Nick: “How about a simple thank-you for a father that goes out of his way to make sure you have snacks? How many recovering drug addicts have snacks?”

Sammartino’s use of third person omniscient narration lets us into his striving protagonists’ heads, if only to see how limited their own omniscience is. Jumbled notions of the American Dream and religious redemption get tangled along dusty desert highways, addiction support group meetings, social media optimization scams, and exurbs bleeding into an unwelcoming wilderness. And above it all—like Fitzgerald’s watchful eyes of T.J. Eckleburg—stands the Eiffel Tower Dealership, the book’s brilliant name for those creepy Carmax Pez Dispensers offering you a salesman-less way to drive to your personal heroic horizon. And of course, Rizzo has flopped as a car salesman.

Last Acts ultimately has no truck for much heroism. Playing with guns gets you exactly where you might imagine it will, if in a surprising twist. Sammartino comes up with a way to make the school shooting that is the plot’s inciting moment terrifying yet almost innocent, particularly when we get to hear of it from a character who survives the day. Her still-stunned affect reminded me of that James Galvin poem “Everyone Knows Whom the Saved Envy.”

Not that you envy the poor Rizzos, who have no luck but worse (they’d likely settle for bad), who get to delineate all the pinprick levels of angst in the word agita. Sammartino often has a Hunter S. Thompson feel to his pointed, real but just pushed to the edge of exaggeration prose, from a lawyer named Mundo Rodriguez to a “shooting range Hawaiian barbeque hosted by the Knights of Columbus from Mesa’s St. John’s.” Television is the one meaningless medium Rizzo and Nick can quietly cohabitate in, sharing silent suppers. It’s just too hard to talk.

For when they do have an inkling they desire more, it ends up like this moment for the trying hard son: “Nick was under the impression that a person was not defined by his actions, but did the Lord, like, agree?” Oh, that like sticks like a bone in the throat. And then Sammartino gives even that a wicked jab, for the next line is “‘I’m just a priest,’ Father Bill said.” It’s a book without a hope in heaven.

The quick chapters work almost like blackout sketches, often powered along by the magic of vivid lists. They might compile sun-bleached Arizona locations or all the infinite anxieties a cell phone can suggest, but they tend to underline how much we hope to fill up our lives while almost succumbing to the terror our lives are time, merely stuffed full. It can begin with Rizzo hoping to “unbend all the angles of his elaborate salvation” and end with him grilling Nick, “I have a question for you. And this is not rhetorical. The question is: have you learned nothing?”

Failed, fucked up, flailing, each other is all they’ve got. And what’s more tender than that?