Carlo Matos’ most recent book, The Quitters, is a collection of flash non-fiction pieces that goes beyond mere personal stories, though it contains evocative and accessible narratives that drive you into the realm of lived experiences. The book is filled with powerful moments, most no longer than a page, that come together to form nine chapters. “Dead Man’s Chest,” for example, dramatizes the author’s time as a cage fighter; “The Quitters” delves into the world of roller derby; “The Bull’s Eye” explores the appeal of bow and arrow, and “In the Hippo’s Mouth” draws charming and innocent comparisons between his father and the late, great Andre the Giant. In “Portuguese Paradise,” Matos attempts to come to terms with his Portuguese-American identity while “The Others” deals with the ironies and isolation of 90s pre-internet youth; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” revels in the ruckus and mob mentality of after-hours collegiate life; “Yankee Swap” mines the experience of the ever-present teacher crush, and, finally, “The Quitter is Illuminated” describes the daily struggles of a community college professor. Dealing always with the dueling themes of quitting and identity, Matos draws perimeters “on the lips of violence” that must “never cross the boundary” but allows us to discover the consequences of crossing that thin line or failing to.
The Quitters is not simply about quitting; it probes the crucial moments “where the quit will happen if it’s going to happen.” It reflects on the awareness it takes to know when to walk away and when to marshal the strength to persevere when necessary, when to “batten down the hatches and fight – keep delaying the day your colors will burn, or worse, sink to the Challenger Deep, splintered by a newer, faster man o’ war,” to fight through impossible and inevitable obstacles. It exposes the lack of awareness it sometimes takes to keep going when it’s not the easy choice but, also, the consequences of enduring when one should relent. Matos recounts with wisdom and hindsight that “though we are told otherwise, there is also a price to pay when we don’t know when to quit.”
Matos believes who we are is tied intimately with when and where we decide to quit: “Like all zealots,” he says of his derby girl, “she was built to bleed, made to test the iron in her will against the teeth of the track.” Matos ties who we are with what we decide to fight through, and how we admit and survive defeat, when we “[dig] in our heels” but the outside world forces our hand. In “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he defines identity in terms of how we publicly support a side, “whether it’s a sporting contest, a school rally, a political affair, or a religious gathering.” In the context of this chapter, he casts “school spirit” as a shibboleth, as a defining trait which establishes, like all shibboleths, those on the inside and those on the outside. “Portuguese Paradise” deals specifically with this idea as it regards his identity as a Portuguese American. He uses Super Mario to highlight this struggle – “maybe,” he reflects, “those two mustachioed, blue collar plumbers-turned-heroes–who looked so much like our fathers and uncles – were proof that we could win a princess or two, that being outsiders didn’t automatically make us the bad guys.” This sentiment speaks to those who know the sense of otherness, individuals from communities that don’t fit exactly with the American preset racial and cultural standards and the fight to find how we fit into the world around us.
Matos’s humor is also on full display in these essays. For example, he turns old literary traditions upside down, when he takes the motifs of the sonnet tradition and inverts it. The sonnet, as we all know, is famous for the dissection of the beloved into parts—parts to be scrutinized and contained by the male gaze. The sonneteer takes a loved one (some poor victim stalked from afar) and takes her apart piece by piece. What Matos does in “Dead Man’s Chest” is a bit different. He takes the hand, the knee, the ear and isolates them from the body. He then describes the experiences and the condition of each physical piece, but instead of comparing these pieces to romantic flora or sunny mornings, he inserts it back into its place in the whole. “So what if your hands hurt when it rains?” he asks, guiding us through a series of comic allusions that range from Achilles to Michael Jackson. “The truth is,” he says, “sometimes we hide much in our hands: our heads in trouble, our faces in shame, our chins when punches fly. A hand in a glove can do what the naked hand won’t. It can clutch cold without freezing, cure without weakening, and yes, strike without breaking.” This is not the hand as it is separated from the body, but the hand as it belongs—whole and intact. This mimics the structure of the book, individual fragments that stand alone but also act together to make a whole.
One of the standout qualities of The Quitters is how relatable it is. You know it not only as he tells you it happened to him, but also how it happened to you. I remember my sister doing the running man in our kitchen as a child. I remember my brother with parachute pants and a chain necklace and his friends in black turtlenecks and chains for prom night in 1995 and going to shows where I was in awe of the coolness of some teenager with a guitar. He describes how his father upon reaching America “continued to collapse in on himself, shoulders pointing in like the dipoles of a horseshoe magnet” and see my own father “pinned to the couch, waiting for another week to start.” Some of this may be coincidence – the author and my siblings are around the same age; I’m also a first generation American from an immigrant father who fought silent battles that kept him a psychological and emotional hostage. But even for those with different circumstances, The Quitters recalls experiences that are nearly universal: the fight to survive and thrive when the odds are stacked against you, the feeling of otherness and defeat, the consequences of both giving up and fighting through. The stun of admiration in the presence of those cooler and more talented. The self-doubt in feeling that I “might be petty, lazy, and simple, but not everyone could be like [me],” and the hope that “there had to be someone who didn’t quit” that pervaded the nostalgic world of youth. The book closes with one of the most relatable sentiments, “I want to say I was illuminated,” he states plainly, and I feel that he’s speaking for all of us.
Marilynn Eguchi is a creative writing and biology student in Chicago. She has published a book review in Cleaver Magazine and is the winner of Truman College’s English Department Literature Award. She has taken classes in poetry, zines, installation and flash as well as general creative writing classes, both at Truman and Eastern Michigan University. She is an editor for Truman College’s student literary magazine City Brink and in her free time, volunteers at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.