I chose to read this because, well, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but other than “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” I haven’t read Steve Almond’s short stories, just his flash. This is his second story collection, published in 2005.
The title story (originally published in Zoetrope) is first, and traces a rocky affair between a women’s magazine editor, who spends her working hours giving life advice to other women, and a less-than-suave medical resident from blind date to… well, I’m not going to give that away. Keep in mind that just because someone doesn’t come across as smooth doesn’t mean he’s not a dog. The first-person female protagonist is wonderfully drawn. But overall I’m a little disappointed – and believe me, I feel pretty stupid saying that. It’s a fun story, smooth as glass to read, but… is there really any there there? Favorite line: “But somehow, the fact that B.B. Chow can’t really kiss or fuck or even fondle, the fact that he makes me feel like Xena, Warrior Princess, these things turn me on. It’s like the bar is set so low with this guy, we can’t help but get over.” I remember some TV show or movie, maybe a book, I’m not sure, where a fat woman went on a blind date with a man who turned out to be fat and rather unattractive, cut the date short then refused all offers of another date. He persistently asked why: did he do something wrong, did he remind her of her evil ex, spinach in his teeth, she’d just met someone amazing the night before, what? And she confessed, she didn’t want to date a fat man. Or an ugly man. A woman in her position (she had some kind of high-end job) did not need to date fat, ugly men. To settle. He was stunned, hurt. “I thought you’d understand,” he said. “You of all people.” “What,” she said, “just because I’m fat, I’m supposed to accept any loser who shows up? No way. I’ve worked hard, I’m a good person, I have a lot to offer, and I’m too good for a fat man.” I had very mixed feelings about that scene. I wonder if it actually exists, or if I made it up. In any case, it was a more effective and moving exploration of how we judge people than this story. Of course, this was a lot more subtle and took a different angle. But I’m just sayin’.
“The Soul Module,” originally published in Tin House, is quite short. Just the title made me think of “The God Module,” a part of the brain that may play a role in a person’s religiousity. And by golly, just like the title of Lauren Groff’s “Delicate Edible Birds” made me think of the feast described in Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw, I was right! Not exactly, but close. Our first-person protagonist, Jim, meets college squash team buddy Wilkes for brunch, very early in the course of which Wilkes explains he has a cartridge in his head, implanted there by alien caretakers. Before Jim can digest this, or get more information (or even order brunch), Wilkes’ parents happen by and join the two buddies. Turns out they, too, have cartridges in their heads, and they take over where Wilkes left off, explaining the details. Jim thinks of a course in The Biology of Religion (sounds like a fascinating course) during which he’d learned of a hormone secreted by the pineal gland which the professor referred to as the Soul Molecule, as it encouraged mystical thoughts. Jim failed the class, but he seems to be making up for lost time as he reacts to this information. One of the winning things about this story is the way it’s presented, in straightforward but slightly stark manner. In fact, the first paragraph struck me immediately as being choppy – strangely choppy – though the rest did not. The dialogue between Wilkes and Jim, before the parents arrive, is amazing. It’s really quite a wonderful read, strange and funny. In the second paragraph, Jim recalls how Wilkes told him, back in their squash playing days, that the secret of his successful game was: “Vision. You have to see what’s going to happen.” Of course, Jim had no vision at the beginning of the brunch, but by the end he seems to have caught on: “Everything that was about to happen I could see, just before it did.” Me, I’d be worrying about a communicable neurological virus at work. But folie a deux – trois, quatre – is probably more likely. I’m reminded of visiting a friend for the weekend many years ago, only to discover her husband was an actively raving alcoholic who was pretty much ignored like the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s a fun story, completely crazy, told perfectly.
“Appropriate Sex” on first read is pretty annoying and feels like flag waving: “Look, ma, no hands, I didn’t touch her even though she came into my office and threw herself at me!” But there’s more to it than that. I once had a therapist who told me she couldn’t be bothered with websites and email or television or movies because she didn’t do screens (this was said with serious deprecation, as if screens were things only cretins bothered with) because her strength was in understanding relationships between people. Considering what a crappy therapist she was, I think maybe she should’ve gone to the movies more and learned to use a computer. This story is all about relationships. Mr. Lowe, college writing teacher, is separated from his wife at least partly due to his newly acquired impotence. The students in his class are discussing a story about a woman who “pulls the plug” on her terminally ill daughter and then rides a horse. One student sees a great deal of sexuality in the horse riding scene. And, to a third-person reader, he’s right. The students take sides. Mr. Lowe gets nervous and tries to move the discussion along. The writer stays silent. But she shows up for office hours with Mr. Lowe and hits on him. All this is pretty routine, but then he says something amazing: “I felt suddenly, irretrievably sorry for both of us, for Mandy who viewed her sexuality as a bright new user option only obscurely related to her heart, and for me, who was losing hair in clumps and couldn’t even give my wife a decent poking anymore. I wanted to have a good cry right then, preferably with my head nuzzled somewhere warm.” The student who noticed the sexuality in the story shows up, and starts confiding in Mr. Lowe about his recently broken relationship, and the two share a joint and gallop off like stallions into the sunset, bringing back to mind the sexual aspects of the horse in the story and the divorce of sex and relationships. I can’t say it was a story I loved – it did seem a bit self-serving, or at least pandering – but I appreciated it at least for the insertion of a Bill and Monica riff, how the definition of sexual relations, and the eventual discovery of the blue dress and the revelation of just what went on in the Oval Office: “this was our national discourse.” Yes, it was, wasn’t it. And that is what, about the whole miserable mess, was truly, truly sad.
“I Am As I Am” immediately had me on alert for something Biblical, a la “I AM THAT I AM”, one of the many translations of YHWH, Yahweh, or Jehovah. But I don’t think that’s what it is. There is church in the story, but it’s clearly stated the church service is not a usual thing, and I AM THAT I AM is kind of hard-core religion. Red herring? Maybe. (I would start a new paragraph here but I’m trying to keep all these comments to one paragraph per story) But I’d rather start with the beginning, a very good place to start, especially in this case, because the little preamble about the park in Dorset Centre, how it was this and someone thought, “Oh, no, that might cause trouble” so they made it that and someone else said, “No, that could cause a different kind of problem” and they ended up with something that didn’t work when it would’ve been great if they’d just let it develop naturally, without all the planning. Thinking about it too much ruined it. And then we go into Eric learning to swing and how his father taught him that it has to be intuitive, that thinking about it won’t work, and I’m going “Yes!” Eric struggles with this concept but he gets it, and becomes, in addition to an attractive and appealing boy, a very good 10-year-old ballplayer. (another paragraph, forgive me) Bill Bellamy is not, however, a good ballplayer. And catastrophe ensues. Eric is fine until everyone keeps assuring him it wasn’t his fault. And he starts thinking about it. And thinking about it. What I love here is that there’s this tendency to assume, especially with kids, that they’re feeling this or that, and to “fix” it. I’m a cryer. I cry in supermarkets, on busses, at dinner, whatever. Definitely at movies. Even comedies. And it freaks people out. I keep assuring them, “I’m all right, I’m just crying, I won’t die from it” but everyone universally seems to feel like they have to fix it. Which makes it a problem, since I have to now conceal that I’m crying. And feel bad about it. “I am as I am” comes in when Mom bakes him a cake to cheer him up (except, um, she got the flavor wrong, so the maid must’ve actually made it) and the phrase is on the cake, which is baffling. I’m wondering if the maid is religious. Or if Mom is just weird. There are some class issues as well – the Bellamys live in an “annex” to the town, the boy isn’t attractive or appealing, and his mom gets a little weird after the tragedy – and all in all there’s a lot to think about here. And I’m wondering, wow, where did this come from, more, please.
“A Happy Dream” is archived on Steve Almond’s website. For a short, not-really-meaningful story, this gave me more associations than I know what to do with. Henry, risk-averse sous-chef, has a blind date with a pretty (not gorgeous, he’s all done with gorgeous) woman by accident when she mistakes him for someone else, and he plays the role of Firefighter Mike. Except, it isn’t really that simple, of course. It’s pleasant, but there are opportunities missed, and the title completely goes by me. It’s not a dream, is it? No, that would be really awful. Anyway, what I’m thinking, while the sous chef is playing firefighter and the bike messenger is playing chimney sweep (I thought something was strange when she said she was a chimney sweep) and it all works out in the end and she continues to see him as a firefighter, is that this is Kurt Vonnegut’s “Who Am I This Time?” which just happens to be maybe my favorite KV story of all time. But that’s just because I know Steve Almond has a literary crush on KV. Something else flitted through my brain but it flitted out again. Maybe because this is NOT “Who Am I This Time” and I’m getting disappointed again. Maybe I should go back and read the amazing flashes in This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey to remember why I’m so into Steve Almond in the first place.
“Lincoln, Arisen” is a little different – I think there’s a story there, but frankly (and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this) I’m just not interested in finding it. I think my read could be characterized as a skim. One paragraph struck me – “There once was a man who found no happiness in his life. He was sad every moment of the day. His duties were many and without mercy. Senators ran to him in anger. Common men blackened their hearts on his behalf. A nation of mothers cursed his name… He behaved nobly, but for reasons he could not fathom. His faults were but the shadows his virtues cast. He saw himself grimly advancing on history, but came to understand it was the other way around…” And another: “‘If anyone can do better than me, let him try his hand,’ he writes, in a note to congressional leaders. ‘You boys at the other end of the avenue seem to feel my job is sorely desired. Listen: I am but one man in this ruinous union, which has become nothing but a white elephant, impossible to steer or manage.'” I am thinking that is from history. I wonder if President Obama, who early on said his Presidency was inspired by Lincoln, but at the time this was written was just a junior Senator with a good keynote speech under his belt (depending on exactly when this was written), read that in his study of the former President. I wonder if he’s read this story. One blogger described it as “President on abolitionist action” as Lincoln and Frederick Douglass take a raft down the Mississippi, a la Huck Finn Ain’t history grand, the way things work out. Part of my trouble with this story, I think, was that I spent the first half of it puzzled, thinking Douglass referred to Stephen Douglas. I should read it again. As I said, I think there’s a story here. A real story, not just cute bawdiness. But, I’m just not interested. Maybe another time.
“The Idea of Michael Jackson’s Dick” on the other hand, is something that just doesn’t interest me any time, any how. Michael Jackson was alive when this story was written. I think it’s sad that it’s more interesting because of that, but still not interesting enough to bother really reading. Sorry. Possible story concept: Where were you when Michael Jackson (or Heath Ledger or Tony Curtis) died? I was having an MRI. I went into the machine when the ambulances were called. I came out and he was dead. No, that has nothing to do with this story. Calling my read a skim would be a kindness.
“The Problem of Human Consumption” originally from The Virginia Quarterly Review – this is the story that tells me I must buy this book (I am reading a library copy). Layers upon layers – hunger, sex, love, cancer, death, loss, secrets. Paul is a widower, as the first sentence declares. Jess is his daughter. He finds his wife’s wedding ring in Jess’ room. He wonders when his wife gave it to her, how Jess could leave it on her dresser so casually, and discovers there is a hair strung through it so he can pull the hair and the ring slides from hand to hand. Jess comes in from her date, sees him in her room; she took the ring from a box in his closet, a box containing various memorabilia of Mom, including the ring. They both remember a moment at the beach years ago, when Paul and his wife made love while Jess, a baby, napped, except she woke up. The common thread running through this, believe it or not, is meat. Ham, and hot dogs. But the image of the ring – Jess does not realize it is suspended by a hair – is so gripping, and the hunger so intense, oh, my, what a story. Neither knows what the other is thinking. They each deal with their own guilt, real (for going into her room, for stealing the ring from him) and imagined (he thinks he killed his wife on that day, she at the time thought he was killing her then and there). That is the key here, these two people, father and daughter, alone when they do not need to be. There is some fourth-wall-breaking stuff I’m usually not crazy about, but it works here. This story cooks. Vegetarian, please. How did he do this? The image of the floating ring? The brilliant concatenation of beach, hunger, meat, loneliness, sex? The narration, present tense, super omniscient switching from Paul to Jess to narrator: “It is important to remember that their crimes are not really crimes. They are simple human failings, distortions of memory, the cruel math of fractured hopes. The only true crime here is one of omission. The woman they both loved has been omitted from their lives. She is a beautiful ghost, a floating ring.” See? This is what I want to learn to do. This is the story I want to learn to write.
“Wired For Life” originally appeared in The Missouri Review. I read this at a bad time. I’d just read a draft of a story by someone who perhaps is developmentally delayed, or has some kind of language deficit. And I had the same feeling when starting this story: it was written in choppy, elementary sentences that barely made sense let alone flowed, with plenty of non sequiturs thrown in. Something like Zin’s hurried and unedited writing. On reading it again, just now, I don’t see the similarity, so I guess it was just carry-over. Very strange. But the story, well, it’s about connections, sexual and electronic. Janie’s laptop power cord is frayed and undependable, and she stops in to Charlie Song’s electronics repair shop to have it fixed. He pulls out a sadder gun – you know, the thing they use for soldering – and she is aroused by the precise motions of his hands, regardless of his aged, baggy face and rotted teeth. This may have something to do with her boyfriend, Drew, who doesn’t want to have sex with her, and regards any contact over “cuddling” to be pressure. Janie is in a bad way. She discovers a few weeks later the cord needs more solder, so she returns to Charlie Song and his sadder gun. Yes, I’m amused by that pun. I remember a book by Echo Heron, one of my many terminal-illness books, this one from a nurse’s point of view, in which she gets in an elevator with a young man pushing a machine. She asks what the machine is, and he says it is a fokk machine. She follows him, curious what the fokk machine is going to do, exactly, and he plugs it in and it starts fokking which helps the asthmatic in the room breathe easier as the moisture in the fog – or more accurately, vapor – relaxes his bronchioles. I giggle uncontrollably when I read that, and I get the same kick out of sadder gun. I also appreciated the description of the cuddling episode that goes bad when Janie thinks Drew is turned on but he isn’t, and he ends up sleeping on the couch. Her last visit to Charlie Song is pretty good. I almost gave up on this one early on, but I’m glad I hung in there. It’s actually quite a portrait of a woman driven crazy by a withholding man, when it’s usually shown the other way around. Oh, and there are a lot of great lines, like “His eyes were so lambent Jamie wanted to poke one with a chopstick.” I had to look up “lambent” – bright, shining. Any story that sends me to the dictionary is a winner. But mostly I just love Janie going back to Charlie Song, time and time again, trying to get her connection fixed.
“Larsen’s Novel” originally appeared in Other Voices. I had a few WTF moments in the opening, but then I realized that was part of the design. Dentist Flem comes home with a novel his pal Larsen has written, and Flem’s wife immediately says, “What is that, a rabbit?” Turns out there is a reason she says this, but it had me thinking I was illiterate. And for some reason, I had a terrible time keeping the characters straight. It isn’t that there are so many of them – two couples, each with children who play minor roles – but I just was bewildered and had to keep looking back at who Beth was married to and who Belle was. Then we have Poor Jude, and that just tickled me, because there are people like that – you call them Poor Whatever not because they are necessarily any more pathetic than anyone else but because they exude this need for sympathy, this put-uponness. The bulk of this story is made up of Flem avoiding Larsen because the novel is, well, not so good. AS someone who regularly trades reviews in an online workshop, I can sympathize. I often have a strong desire to run and hide because A has reviewed my story and now I have to review A’s story, and I do not want to! In fact, I am dealing with that on several levels right this minute. And it isn’t because I’m such a great writer, it’s that the story is in a genre that just doesn’t appeal to me, or for whatever reason is a chore to read. Find a dozen ways to say “this story was meh” without hurting someone’s feelings. Yeah, go ahead, do it. Anyway, back to Larsen’s novel, which is deemed by a professional critic to be awful, and then by another to be genius (not an uncommon thing, a group of us are reading BASS 2010 together and every story gets its share of “what is this doing in this collection” reactions). But Flem doesn’t know how to face Larsen. Lots of humor surfaces throughout. And Dr. Oss appears! Is this the same Dr. Oss from “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched“? If so, he deserved the punch he got, because he’s rather an ass. There is a point to all this: Flem is actually jealous that Larsen wrote a novel, even a bad novel. And his avoidance has consequences. I felt sorry for everyone involved here, but no one was a real villain, they all just had their own tragic flaws.
“Skull” is posted online at Nerve.com. In the comments section is a link to a generic joke collection that pretty much is the story (a woman with a glass eye likes to take it out and have her boyfriend screw the socket. The specifics are given in great detail). I’m perplexed as to why Steve Almond would bother rewriting a really gross joke, and why he’d end a collection with it. Then I think, maybe I’m just an old fart who doesn’t know how to have fun, maybe this is funny, maybe it’s even touching (um, no, no touching, please!), this version of intimacy, how desperate must someone be for real intimacy and why would she be that desperate, does it, as the comment say, relate to a French story about a woman who pulls out a priest’s eyes and inserts them into her, and to the equivalency of eye loss with castration, …) but no, it’s just creepy and unpleasant and I really am disappointed this is how the collection, which contains some excellent stories, ends.
I’m going to return to Steve Almond’s online story archive and check out the rest of the stories there. I’m not planning on reading Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life because I have heard it is pretty much heavy on the raucous sex romp, and while I’m down with that in small doses, I’m a little old for a whole book of it. Final question: if he can write stories like “The Problem of Human Consumption” and “I Am As I Am,” and to a lesser extent “Larson’s Novel” and “Lincoln, Arisen” and “Wired for Life” why is he fooling around with “Skull” and “A Happy Dream”? Then again, who the hell am I to judge Steve Almond.