Toward the end of Steve Almond’s new story collection, The Evil B.B. Chow, the author treats us to the following heart-to-heart:
Jake glanced at me. His eyes were glassy with the accumulated booze; I could see now that he’d been prepping himself. “It gave her great pleasure to have me touch her there. You know, anyone can love the other parts of her. You’ve seen her, Pete. She’s a beautiful woman. But to have a man accept that part of her, it drives her crazy. That’s what we all want anyway, to have our lover accept the most damaged part of us, right?”
It’s the sort of passage designed to make author Almond seem like a really deep, empathic guy-until you realize what these two palookas are actually discussing: skull fucking. That “damaged part” mentioned above? Yep, it’s an eye socket.
This should be shocking, of course. But coming from Almond it’s par for the course. He has long been Boston’s most shameless writer, a whore, a guy who will write anything for attention.
But, to be fair, Almond is a whore who cares, the kind who listens to all the tawdry details of your sob story before discreetly plucking the bills from your dresser. Almond made his nut as a storywriter with the collection My Life in Heavy Metal (Grove 2002) which was mostly about men screwing up. This new collection has broadened his reach to include … women screwing up.
The title story, which features a magazine editor falling for a diminutive Asian-American cad, is a good example. Here’s our heroine in typical Almond overdrive:
“I manage to relent, blouse by bra by panties, my outfit wrung into colored bulbs on the rug, knowing I shouldn’t, knowing the sort of message it sends, but also somewhat relishing ceding to the reckless volition of my sexual adulthood … Here’s what has me baffled: the sex was good. 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 the Princess Warrior, these things turn me on.”
But it would be wrong to write Almond off as a one-note horndog. No, in this collection his generously spreads his social diseases around. We are treated to meditations on alien abduction (“The Soul Molecule”), Abraham Lincoln (“Lincoln, Arisen”), and sexual dysfunction (“Wired for Life”). Almond’s most blatant effort to cop a feel off pop culture is a story titled, with typical subtlety, “The Idea of Michael Jackson’s Dick,” which I won’t dignify with a comment.
Indeed, it is one of the defining aspects of Almond’s fiction that there is very little to elaborate about. His plots, when he bothers with them, amount to sitcom setups. “A Happy Dream” is about a guy who’s approached by a beautiful girl who thinks he’s her blind date. And get this, folks: He goes along with it!
“A light snow drifted down and fell on her hair and Henry wanted to tell her, right then, no, he wasn’t a firefighter, he was a sous chef, a lonely, risk-averse sous chef, but desire was surging through him now and the heart needed these things, these moments of grand drama. He thought: I will die if I don’t kiss her.”
Almond’s characters are always having moments like this. They are full of Desire. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. Like their creator, they do not recognize subtlety or restraint as viable life options.
“Appropriate Sex” stars a burned-out creative writing professor whose fiction workshop goes awry when the students begin to discuss horse sex. Here’s the opening salvo:
“This was a Friday in April, one of the last days of the term, and the undergrads were all worked up. You could see it in the way they touched themselves, those lewd innocent little caresses of the self, the way they lingered over their cigarettes out on the steps, a thousand bright sucking lips.”
Almond isn’t just writing what he knows in this story (he’s a writing professor at BC); he seems to have brought a tape recorder to class and had someone else transcribe and edit it for him. Maybe the saddest story of the lot is “Larsen’s Novel,” which revolves around a guy named Flem trying to avoid reading his best friend’s terrible 600-page novel. It’s no surprise that Almond might choose to write about a failed novel. It’s not exactly a state secret that he’s been unable to master the long form himself. Instead, he’s settled for this grab bag of glib ditties about skull fucking and Jacko’s johnson.
In sum, this is the kind of book that would make an ideal gift for the Republican blowhard in your life-just make sure you include the receipt.