Steve Almond’s latest collection of short stories takes the comic writer into new terrain—the darkness. Not that Almond was exactly light before. His memoir Candyfreak—in which he exposed himself as obsessively self-medicating with sweets—is never going to be optioned by Disney. Still over the course of these new stories, the darkness gradually deepens. Like many comics before him, Almond’s got a tragic side, and it’s gaining on him fast.
Well, good thing. Because as hard as I’ve laughed at Almond’s earlier work, I’m now aching for more of his latest. Is it because I’m a sucker for stories where lobotomies or blood-splattered breach births are the subject? A little. But even more it’s because I see Almond tapping into a new vein here. And as the blood runs, I’m hooked.
Call me a rubbernecker if you like, but in military-occupying, Snooki-celebrating, porn-toy—excuse me, internet—obsessing America, you have to be willfully blind not to see something’s facacht. Almond’s clearly clued into this mess. And having looked at it with eyes wide, he’s sharing with us what he’s seen, alternately joking to lighten the mood and breaking down at the sheer waste of it.
Of course, to say that this tragic vein is completely new for Almond is perhaps a bit misleading. If previously he’s made us laugh until we cry, he’s also always seemed ready to make us cry until we laugh. He’s a visceral sort, inclined to deep feelings, whether he’s sneering at then groveling before Oprah as he did hilariously in Not That You Asked or skewering the pretensions of drooling music fanatics (like himself), as in his second memoir, Rock And Roll Will Save Your Life. Like the best comics, he’s always gone for both the jugular and the guts. He kills, as they say. And to kill you gotta care. Or at least be pretty intimate with the angsty, night terror aspects of life.
Just ask Soon-Yi’s husband if you don’t agree. Or Philip Roth, Gary Shteyngart, S.J. Perelman or Kafka. Or better yet, ask those vaudevillians Abraham and Isaac (“Take my son, please!”) That comedy thing runs deep, so perhaps it goes without saying that Almond’s one of us. Yet let me out him here and propose that his J-ness has something to do with his talents. From nebbishy Dr. Oss, the poker addicted shrink treating a card shark, to caretaker Wolf Pinkas, the Holocaust survivor building his home in a cemetery, Almond’s characters know what it feels like to get no respect, just as they figuratively know what it feels like to whistle past Uncle Adolf’s Haus. Or to put it otherwise, you don’t have to eat Arnold’s rye, much less take the Holocaust personally, to write a story about a guy attempting to make his schlong a Yule gift, but if you want to do it well—and give it a killer title like “A Jew Berserk On Christmas Eve”—it helps.
And yet, while a number of the stories in God Bless America have Jewish characters and some Jewish themes, this is not necessarily a Jewish book. If anything it’s an American one, informed by a familiar sensibility, a look at the Republic in crisis via the personal stories of Americans, like us. Along with the previously mentioned shrinks, caretakers and possessors of Yule logs, these include folks like: Billy Clamm, a wannabe actor hamming it up as a historical tour guide; Sophie, a bitter airport security worker taking her anger out on the world; Jim Cutler, a tree surgeon arguing with his dying father; and Tedesco, a returning veteran launching into a really bad date. There are laughs for sure, with clueless Billy in particular, and there are scenes of rueful amusement, as when Sophie meets a nine-year-old kid even more cynical than herself, but there are also moments of pure tragedy such as the zombified fate awaiting another veteran, and others that border on the surreal, such as when an unassuming accountant is offered a preview of 9/11 terrors to come.
Yet ultimately, there is hope, even in the midst of the direst darkness, as is evident in the moving final story “A Dream of Sleep”. In some sense, all of God Bless America seems to be heading to this, a genuine new direction for Almond and one that should earn him a new audience. If Almond here seems poised to push his punchlines to the edge of the abyss, don’t let yourself be scared by that. He’s doing so for a higher cause, nothing less than to heal our wounds. There’s tikkun olam at work here. In his latest collection, Almond is doing God’s work.
Steven Lee Beeber is the author of The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk (Chicago Review Press, 2007), editor of the insomnia anthology AWAKE! A Reader for the Sleepless (Soft Skull Press, 2008) and associate editor of Conduit, “the only magazine that risks annihilation”. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Fiction, The New York Times, Spin, Mojo, Memorious and elsewhere. His website is www.jewpunk.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @jewpunk. Or on Facebook.