The Gallows Humor of Alexander Sammartino’s “Last Acts” – Chicago Review of Books


It is difficult to talk about guns in America without talking about denial. With every new tragedy, we look the other way in a naive attempt to escape responsibility for our role in sustaining the cycle of gun violence. 

Alexander Sammartino shows a keen sensitivity to this dynamic in his raucous, irreverent debut novel, Last Acts. Guns occupy center stage in Sammartino’s sly and darkly humorous take on modern masculinity, appropriately set among the unforgiving sun and tacky strip malls of the American southwest. Sammartino uses the father-son relationship at the heart of the book to poke fun at 21st-century American machismo, though his readers will be forgiven for wondering if Sammartino is always in on the joke.

Last Acts opens with failing gun store owner David Rizzo on his way to pick up his son, Nick, from the hospital after a near-fatal drug overdose. The pair have been estranged for a year, but Rizzo sees Nick’s improbable survival as a sign of better things to come. Nick moves in with him to help run the foundering business, playing into Rizzo’s desire to reconcile and prove his worth as a father and provider. But Nick is depressed and emotionally distant, blunted by his drug habit and lacking any self-confidence or motivation. Though Rizzo seems bent on nursing his son back to health and saving the gun store in the process, he often loses patience with Nick, resorting to exasperated brow beatings that leave his son bemused. 

The plot takes a turn when Rizzo is locked up on felony charges for selling an automatic weapon to a teenage mass shooter. With Rizzo incarcerated, his son takes over the business, using its newfound notoriety to attract customers. For a while, Nick enjoys a modest success that his father never experienced, even hosting pop-up sales at unlikely venues, from cheap motels to church parking lots. Guilt from Nick’s participation in the gun trade causes him to cast about for deeper meaning. At one point, Nick finds himself alone with a priest:

“What happens if you act in a way that you know is wrong, but you believe in what is right? What then? Nick was under the impression that a person was not defined by his actions, but did the Lord, like, agree?

‘I’m just a priest,’ Father Bill said.”

I found it hard to sympathize with Nick, who repeatedly chooses the store and the chance to impress his father over starting a new life for himself. His sudden attacks of conscience felt opportunistic and self-serving. Nick and Rizzo ask hard questions — does heaven exist, is redemption possible — and, to the author’s credit, Sammartino refrains from offering them easy answers. 

The uptick in sales proves brief. Unburdened by his father’s watchful eye, Nick shifts his attention from the store to a half-baked scheme to launch a social media marketing agency. Nick puts an old friend and recovering addict, Matt Wilson, in charge of operating the gun store on a daily basis, but Matt is even more emotionally fragile than Nick. While Nick is distracted, Matt’s negligence and poor judgment lead to disastrous consequences. After serving a three-year sentence, Rizzo emerges from prison to find that his son has sold their house, relapsed, and literally destroyed the store due to mismanagement. The two Rizzos are left nearly penniless, with dim prospects for the future.

What ultimately unites the pair is their stubborn tendency toward denial. Rizzo refuses to acknowledge or accept defeat, and Nick refuses to believe he might ever succeed. Problematically, they both avoid any reckoning with the moral implications of their chosen line of business. They mutely acknowledge one mass shooting after another, even a local shooting perpetrated by one of their customers, without addressing their complicity in such massacres. Nick flirts with a second career as a promoter for a charity opposing gun violence, but this felt like a dalliance, rather than personal growth, and the project fails to inspire any meaningful introspection. While Rizzo and Nick’s denial of their complicity struck me as authentic and true to life, the same tendency toward denial hobbles their ability to change and progress, leaving each character in a kind of holding pattern. Neither is brave enough to be vulnerable around the other. This obstinacy impoverishes them and prevents their relationship from maturing.

Last Acts pays tribute to gallows humorists like Sam Lipsyte, Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Tropper, and Jonathan Franzen. Sammartino’s ball-busting antihero and his tragically bumbling son are poured from the same mold as Chip in The Corrections or Milo’s boss from Lipsyte’s novel The Ask. Sammartino’s self-consciously bleak vision of American culture places Last Acts in a subgenre of disillusioned masculinity that will strike a chord for fans of these authors. 

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But Sammartino’s strongest influence lies with George Saunders, arguably the reigning monarch of 21st-century satirical fiction. Sammartino channels Saunders in chapters that mimic news articles and cheeky tweets (for example, Nick tweets on behalf of a client: “PHX HOME HOSPICE. Sponsored. Do you want your last meal to be Jell-o?”). Rizzo’s pained internal monologue makes him sound at times like one of Saunders’ tragicomic heroes. The similarities are unsurprising, given that Sammartino probably studied under Saunders while earning his MFA from Syracuse University. Last Acts is lightheartedly absurd and a fitting vehicle for the elder Rizzo, whom I found as gruff and endearing as an irascible uncle, but ultimately, Sammartino falls short of Saunders’ playfulness and chameleonic ability to capture different voices and tones. 

Sammartino portrays the southwest as a bleached and broken landscape, inhospitable to men of tenuous means. A scarcity of robust, female characters gives the desert in Last Acts a particularly bare and stark quality. However, the book ends on a hopeful note and a role reversal. For the first time, Nick consoles his father, reassuring him with an uplifting vision of the afterlife. 

It is the closest these characters come to demonstrating moral strength, and the scene points the way to a more redemptive future for our violent and divided society. If the Rizzos can learn to support one another, then so can the rest of us.

Last Acts
By Alexander Sammartino
Scribner Book Company
Published January 23, 2024

Max Gray

Max Gray’s essays and criticism have appeared in the Chicago Review of Books and The Rumpus. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in Cutbank, Mount Hope, and Jelly Bucket. He is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program. Learn more about him at


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