In Steve Almond’s new story collection, God Bless America, Almond does what he does best—eviscerate and then forgive our pitiful culture of excess.
Steve Almond, who famously quit his job at Boston College over an invitation extended to then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, now has the endorsement of conservatives from Palin to Beck for his collection of short fiction, God Bless America. Take a look at the promotional trailer which is vintage Almond and you’ll hear them, one and all, screaming the title with enthusiasm.
Since 2006, Almond has produced a multitude of writings both collected between covers and going viral online. He gave props to Glenn Beck, in Salon, and analyzed the role of artists during a time of violence in the wake of the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords for The Rumpus. Most recently, he wrote the kind of reflection that people from Kandahar to Qalandiya no longer expect from Americans. In between My Life in Heavy Metal, Candy Freak, Which Brings Me to You, co-authored with Julianna Baggot, his collection of essays in rant major, Not That You Asked and Rock & Roll Will Save Your Life. He also got more cool, got a life and fathered a few. In addition, with his usual verve he transformed his hate-mail into a hilarious yet deadly serious call-and-response collection, Letters From People Who Hate Me that he self-published. It’s the kind of legerdemain that makes Almond one of the most salient political commentators of our time.
Which brings me to God Bless America, a collection that should be seen as part of a body of work intent on eviscerating and then forgiving our pitiful culture of excess, this social milieu in which we—our bodies bent to their “awful purposes”—run amok with the faintest grasp on reality and even less on our own motivations. We spout platitudes on the one hand, like Billy in the title story, about this “land built by opportunists,” and face painful truths on the other, as Sophie does in “Not Until You Say Yes”: “Nothing was ever done, it was always suffering some improvement. Were human beings really such factories of discontent?” Yes, we are, and Almond is a writer who is as painfully aware of the ludicrousness of our predicament as he is a believer in the possibility of our salvation.
In “Akedah,” a story that evokes that most inconceivable of the Pentateuchal narratives, the story of Abraham, Almond traces a mother’s helpless descent from a loving caregiver who seeks out her Rabbi for solace in treating the invisible scars within a soldier, into a woman who willingly relegates him to becoming the nothing he is not. Finally aware of what she has done, she asks herself, “You were his mother. He was an angel. How did you miss that?” and the reader is right with her, grieving, cursing, giving up, giving in, lost with no benevolent divine hand to stop her or, indeed, us.
In “What the Bird Says,” though the conceit of an invisible bird is fanciful, the story itself about a withholding father on his deathbed and a son still waiting for grace is familiar and occasions moments of sheer brilliance. In a flashback to an earlier time, the son, Jim, twitching with either rage or terror (he does not know) fresh from his “sophomore-year survey of colonialism, bristling with newly acquired rhetoric: hegemony, passive wealth, deforestation,” is suddenly aware of his father and the “smallness of his tyranny, a man enslaved by privilege, destined to rule women and boys.” The denouement is beautifully consistent with all the little clues along the way, the references to “axes and guns, those dependable accomplices of civilization,” and the mansion with its “antebellum aspirations,” coming full circle to the humans in the story who have and have not lived.
The collection is book-ended by two stories that are classic Almond: the prosaic underbelly married to a shockingly rich interiority. The opener, “God Bless America,” is precise, its characters both recognizable and believable. Billy, a man who celebrates his difficult life though he “lived behind a wall of security personnel,” turns an opportunity to operate an amphibious duckmobile in Boston into his small step toward an interview with Diane Sawyer, “if she were not dead,” and a giant step toward the fulfillment of the American dream, even if it meant he may—or may not—have to “eat a person metaphorically” in a “large and prosperous country…that could accommodate the less enthused, people like Jacomo, or, for that matter, his pop, who had never showed much enthusiasm for anything aside from Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra.”
Foreign wars are never very far out of the frame, though for those who know his other work, they are possibly less fresh. Yet any faults in those are more than forgiven by “A Dream of Sleep,” which closes the collection is a riveting and gentle portrayal of Wolf Pinkas, the regretful survivor of the holocaust—a time inferred with great subtlety—who takes up residence in a converted crypt and dedicates his life to tending to a cemetery. Time passes around him; there are visitors both feline and human and engulfing sadness that eventually gives way to the longing that fuels all human survival. The story does not have a weak bone in its body, the language lingering only just as much as is required to take the reader, shuffle by careful step through a cemetery, through a crypt, through loss and death and back toward life.
In a shout out to his fans, Almond writes, “After many years in the wilds of non-fiction, I’ve returned to my first love, short stories.” The memory of first loves and our desire to regain that fervorful flush is understandable. But in Almond’s case we hope that he returns whenever possible to the form that suits his wit and intelligence best; America’s need for that voice is far greater than her need for stories that showcase his equally considerable sense of humor.
Nonetheless, this collection goes as far as it possibly can to bridge those two worlds. The strange thing about that trailer is that, perhaps, Steve Almond loves America far more deeply than any of the conservatives shouting to their god of selective demographics. He loves the darkness, the ugly behaviors, the pathetic idiocy of vast swaths of the population. He is like Dr. Raymond Oss, the poker player in “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” “who loved Artichoke Joe’s especially while hating it.” In this moment in our history, there is much to loathe and a great need for a writer who can tell us why. Billy, in “God Bless America,” adrift with a cache of coke in the Boston harbor, rudderless yet hopeful, imagines that “the right actor, rising to the role as required, breathing into it the necessary sense of wonder and hope, would be able to bring the moment off.” Almond is most definitely the right actor to pull off if not our collective and lasting liberation then at least the grace of a brief reprieve.