I’ve been a fan of Steve Almond for years, I like how he has focused his career on short fiction and short nonfiction, it’s admirable. He also seems to be a person whose views and interests I seem to share pretty thoroughly. Years ago I found a copy of “My Life in Heavy Metal” in hard back at a discount book store. This particular collection “God Bless America” I found out about because of a very funny YouTube Video that he made, which you can see here. Also I read one of these stories before, as it was published in the Best American Short Stories, 2010 edition. We’ll get to which one that was in a minute.
God Bless America – Not Almonds very best story, but it’s pretty good, and very funny. It’s about a guy who gets involved in this Boston tourist show, because he sees it as beginning step in his acting career. The story reminds me a lot of the Weird Al song “Skipper Dan” accept that the titular character of that song finds himself as a tour guide at the end (instead of the beginning) of a disappointing acting career. Also the main character of this story seems somewhat oblivious to the real world, this is further elaborated by the “factoids” he gives during his tours of Boston. I don’t love the title though, it seems kind of force. In fact only 3 of the 10 stories in the collection have interesting titles that alone make you what to read them and wander what they could be about. Then again Almond (for me at least) is not known for his particularly interesting titles.
Donkey Greedy, Donkey Get Punched – yes this is one of the stories with a you-know-you-want-to-read-me title. This is also the story I had read beforehand, and reading it a second time was even more enjoyable. I really enjoy the style of writing in this particular story, Almond covers a considerably long span of time in relatively few words. The story is about a psychoanalyst and armature poker player, who receives a professional poker player as a patient. What makes this story more interesting is that Poker plays a fairly important role in the story and in the last scene of the book there are pictures of cards in the story, and the pictures actually tell what would take a lot of words to explain.
Not Until I Say Yes – another good story. This one is about an older woman with a gambling problem (unclear how severe this problem is) working as a TSA agent, who is given a special assignment to take care of a kid (11 or so) who has missed his flight. He’s actually intentionally missed the flight through some sort of scheme so that he can sell the tickets back. I didn’t quite understand how it worked, I don’t fly very often. But I liked the story. It’s thematically similar to “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Get Punched” without feeling like a variation on the same story. I can see the story behind this story being that Almond was on a flight, had to deal with a TSA agent who he didn’t like, but then started thinking about what her life might be like outside of the airport.
Shotgun Wedding – you can probably guess what this story would be about based on the title, but you may or may not be wrong. The story is about a woman who has a cold, or thinks she has a cold, and when she goes to the Doctors office, the doctor believes she is actually pregnant. The husband is kind of estranged at this point, because he left San Diago and went to Milwaukie to open, if I remember right, an insurance firm, and then is planning to send for his wife when he is settled in. the whole arrangement seems kind of strange, and it’s intentionally written like that. The story is kind of funny too, because after the woman finds out she might be pregnant (though denying it completely) she keeps running into babies and baby related topics and so on.
Tamalpais – another very good story from the collection, kind of sad and heavy when looking back on the final result of the supporting character. the story hit’s home with me somewhat because it’s about a young man, 16 or so, working at a restaurant, with a difficult guest he is trying to serve who is waiting for another man to show up. She is not difficult in an obnoxious way, it’s difficult to explain without giving away a lot of the story, and I don’t want to do that since it’s quite a good story. Check it out.
The Darkness Together – under normal circumstances this story would fall into the category of, not good enough (or bad enough) to give special mention. However this story actually won a Pushcart Prize, so clearly at least a couple people liked this story considerably more than I did. The story is about a teenager and his mother taking the train from I think somewhere in New York to Toledo, and a very strange man enters their cabin and talks to them, constantly talking, giving his opinion, an off color opinion most of the time. The mother/son relationship is bizarre and suggested to be borderline sexual, thus making the story even more difficult to get through.
A Jew Berserk on Christmas – Another story with one of those you-know-you-want-to-read-me titles, though this title is a little too off color. The story itself is about as off color as the title would suggest. The setup is a 19 year old college kid, who’s jewish, is invited to his French girlfriend’s house for Christmas eve. They have not had sex yet and she told him that he had to wait until Christmas eve for her. At midnight he goes to the girl’s room, but the bulk of the story is his journey from his room in the basement to her room in the third floor. It’s kind of sexual parody of Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, with each floor bringing something bizarre to the narrator’s attention. The story is probably the funnies story in the collection.
Akedah – the shortest story in the collection (at 4 pages and change), I don’t know if it’s the best or not, but it is way up there, a definitely hit. A little stranger than the typical Almond fair, told in the second person about a disturbed veteran from WWI, who’s mother seeks to cure him of his PTSD (or as it was called back then “Shell Shock”). Of course the words PTSD or Shell Shock are never specifically laid out. What puts this story way up there for me, is that it more or less takes place in Philadelphia, and in one segment it talks about Conshohockan, Lebanon, and even (and this was very surprising to see in print, especially by someone who lives… not locally) Great Valley, where I went to school and live. Literally I was in the Great Valley region when I read that passage, and I don’t think that’s ever happened before.
Hagar’s Sons – this is a weirder story, especially for this collection. I’m not sure what exactly the title is in reference too, but the story is about a Jewish investor, of a lower tear sort, who is hired by the sheik of an extremely wealthy emirate for financial advice. They fly him out to the emirate, wine and dine him, but the whole time he feels uncomfortable. The story is broken up into a dozen or so “chapters” unnumbered but strangely titled. It’s kind of a fun read, not as good as some of the other stories in this collection, but not bad.
First Date Back – this is a story about a soldier returning from Afghanistan with PTSD, and becoming infatuated with a flight attendant, who he convinces to go on a date with him. The story is not bad, but it’s not hugely original or insightful.
A Dream of Sleep – another very strange story, but it is well placed at the end of the book. The story is about a hermit graveyard caretaker. He lives in a mausoleum that was previously unoccupied and essentially watches the world outside the graveyard slowly deteriorate as a result of inner city poverty. Of the 13 stories in this collection, this one I could most see catering itself to an elaborate academic criticism, it’s not all that long (16 pages or so, roughly the length of most stories in the collection), but there is an awful lot going on here. I also like the title a lot.
Afterword: I omitted two stories from being reviewed properly, “Hope Wood” and “What the Bird Says” because they just weren’t very good, likewise “the Darkness Together” would also have been mentioned here as not very good either if it wasn’t for being so well received. That’s not too bad, at least 8 of the stories in the collection are really good, while another two of them are fairly good, not a bad average, I’ve read much worse collections in my life. Comparing this collection to “My Life in Heavy Metal” I’d say that I like this one a lot more (though the title of the other was much better), that book was heavily sexual, even in the commercial for this book Almond describes himself as a sex writer, but in this story, there is really only one story about sex, with the subject minimally appearing in two other stories, even the story “Shotgun Wedding” isn’t all that sexual. There are some reoccurring themes in this collection though, which is something I have mixed feelings on, the collection doesn’t give off the “One Trick Pony” vibe as much as say “Cold Snap” by another legendary master of the short story Thom Jones, but the “reruns” do get a little annoying. Looking back on all the stories now, I’d have to say my favorite is still “Donkey Greedy Donkey Get Punched” with “A Dream of Sleep” just right behind it.