My favorite writing adage, attributed to Ray Bradbury, is “Write only what you love.” I’ve always taken it to mean that love is the ticket into the mindset that can lead to good writing. In other words, writers are only capable of writing well about what they love, no matter how strange that may seem on the surface. On some level, Nabokov has to love Humbert Humbert to write compellingly about him. Updike has to love Rabbit. Milton has to love Satan.
Upon reading God Bless America, Steve Almond’s third collection of short stories and his first since 2005’s The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories, it’s not hard to imagine Almond loving these feisty Americans he writes about, who can’t seem to view anything but through the rosy lenses of their desires. Not that this is new territory for the author; much of Almond’s work is set in the varied and fertile tableau of the United States. But with this collection he seems to feel the need–with both title and subject matter–to recognize his stories for what they are: blessings from a writer enchanted with the earnest if irrational souls who frequent his country.
Nowhere is this sentiment more explicit than in the first story “God Bless America.” In it, Billy Clamm stumbles into a drama class and a destiny. After attending the class for two months, “[Billy] saw, for instance, that his job stocking at the Osco Pharmacy on Locust was a dead end creatively.” Almond loves to include these banal details for comic effect, and we’re charmed by Billy’s self-assuredness. Likewise, when he performs a Willy Loman speech in front of his class:
Billy was fairly certain that some of his classmates had teared up, though he couldn’t be sure because he was in character. The performance, the feeling of destiny it inspired, was why Billy had begun describing his unemployment benefits as a kind of “grant.”
These details are funny, but their potency is in their ability to disarm us so we can feel other things for Billy, like compassion and empathy. We see more of ourselves in him than we might care to admit, even at the end of the story, when the need for Billy to take his opportunities where they come is brought into twisted relief.
As much as Almond likes to employ humor, it’s his descriptive use of language that truly sets his writing apart. In “Shotgun Wedding,” he explodes the reader’s senses with his rendering of the making of a Philly cheese steak:
You always hoped Vic was working (as opposed to Constantine), because he used six steaks per order, peeling the paper-thin fillets from an overhead freezer and flipping them across the grill like playing cards. The steaks took just a minute to brown. Vic would cleave off a spatula’s worth of onions and peppers from the heap at the center of the grill and slather them across the steaks. Next came the cheese, three squares of provolone laid, always, corner to corner atop the onions, like yield signs. The cheese began to melt almost immediately, to bubble and curl, and Vic delivered four or five quick strokes with the edge of the spatula, then layered the jumble onto a long roll from the Portuguese bakery next door.
Could Hemingway have done that any better?
Each of these thirteen stories is different from the others. An accountant lured to help Arab opportunists during the lead-up to a 9/11-like attack, two college boys wrestling with a moving job and early adulthood, a older female airline employee dealing with a ten year old who’s rigged the free-flight system–no interrelation here. Still, all of them deal with someone grappling with the juxtaposition of how he wishes his life to go and how it unravels. In the story “Donkey Greedy, Donkey get Punched,” which was selected for Best American Short Stories in 2010, Almond explores our often fervent need to defeat something, even if it’s just ourselves. Therapist Dr. Raymond Oss has a predilection for poker, one that goes deeper than wanting to win a few bucks.
He didn’t mind losing, either, if the cards were to blame. It was only when he screwed up―when he failed to see a flush developing or got slow-played by some grinning Chinese maniac―that he felt the pinch of genuine rage. And even these hands offered a certain masochistic pleasure, a mortification that was swift and public.
Raymond finds card playing the perfect container in which to dump his secret wants, and as it is with most of the protagonists in God Bless America, the deck is rarely kind to those who want too much.
Many who love Steve Almond’s writing love it for its bumblingly charming protagonists, whom the reader can’t help but take as stand-ins for the author. There is some of that in this collection, most notably in “A Jew Berserk on Christmas Eve,” but I was just as engaged by the stories with more mature subject matter. In a story like “Akedah,” about a mother who welcomes her son home from World War II only to lose him to madness, no humor is necessary to render the mother’s pathos. In this sequence, she returns home to a bizarre screaming coming from her son Isaac’s room.
You think: a girl. You think: what has he done? The noise stops, then starts again. You call his name. You walk quietly to his door and pause, breathing hard. A memory comes to you from childhood, of walking in the woods behind your father, his broad back surging forward, dark fringes of shadow, the struggle to keep up. Where was he taking you?
Isaac, you whisper. Darling, what is it?
You ease the door open and he is sitting on the bed staring at you, as if he has been waiting for this moment his entire life.
The noise comes out of him.
You close the door.
In these moments, you glimpse what Almond would write about were he a grown-up, and by the skill displayed therein, you realize he is.
When God Bless America falters, it isn’t when Almond takes on more adult material but when he writes more conventionally. In the final story of the collection, “A Dream of Sleep,” in which a graveyard caretaker is forced out of his job, the normal Almond exuberance is replaced–for at least half the story–by something more staid, almost like the author is trying to write the way a writer is supposed to write. Almond doesn’t have to chronicle sexcapades to engage his audience, but he does have to write with urgency, as he does throughout this collection.
Some fiction writers we read and weep afterwards, for we know we will never write as well. (Henry James and Wells Tower come to mind.) Then there’s this other kind of master, the kind who writes so emphatically and believably we rush to our keyboards to try–no matter how delusionally–to do the same. Steve Almond is of this latter type. His talent is only matched by his relatability, and that might be the greatest gift he has to give us.