by Steve Almond (Algonquin Books, 232 pages, $22.95)
Studies have shown that chocolate and sex affect the same pleasure center in the brain, so it seemed only natural that Steve Almond, the author of the memoir/non-fiction cult hit Candyfreak, would wield an impressive pen and deft touch when it came to the subject of sex in his first short story collection, My Life in Heavy Metal. Almond deals with sex and the sticky complications of human intimacy in a similarly explicit and adult (as in grown-up, not porno) manner in The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories, but what makes his latest collection so impressive is that he's broadened his emotional palette and craftsmanship to the point where mention of his name alongside our best contemporary short story writers — Tobias Wolff, Tim O'Brien, Lorrie Moore — seems equally sensible.
But let's talk about sex first, a department where Almond has few peers. Like the title story recounting an unlikely odd-couple affair between a gorgeous, sexually seasoned femme fatale and her ordinary looking, clumsy male neophyte partner, or the co-ed heat generated in the university classroom setting of "Appropriate Sex," the author imbues his sex scenes with equal amounts of animal steam and human awkwardness. Take the scene in "Appropriate Sex" where a professor of creative writing and a sexually precocious student teeter on the brink of seduction. With her hand placed suggestively on his thigh, the professor/narrator runs a gamut of instantaneous emotions:
"...a couple of seconds passed, a couple of very long seconds, like perhaps the longest seconds in the recorded history of my life, extremely complicated, morally unchartered seconds...(but) there was something in these gestures, a certain rehearsed quality, that made me sad. I felt suddenly, irretrievably sorry for both of us, for Mandy, who viewed her sexuality as a bright new user option only obscurely related to her heart, and for me, who was losing hair in clumps and couldn't even give my wife a decent poking anymore..."
If My Life In Heavy Metal concerned itself with the lustful shenanigans of predominantly younger folk, Almond has turned his eye toward the more complicated vagaries of middle-age sensuality and sensibility in B.B. Chow. In one of the collection's more affecting stories, "The Problem of Human Consumption," a widower and his adolescent daughter make an awkward but vital connection in the form of a glancing hug during an unscripted moment of vulnerability.
"It is important to remember that this is only a single moment, this tentative caress, nothing they will speak of again, an interlude," Almond writes. "It is important to remember that their crimes are not really crimes. They are simple human failings, distortions of memory, the cruel math of fractured hopes. The only true crime here is one of omission. The woman they both loved has been omitted from their lives. She is a beautiful ghost..."
Moments like this abound in B.B. Chow, and Almond hasn't lost any of his hip edge, either. In the wildly amusing "The Idea of Michael Jackson's Dick," three characters riff on how one of America's foremost entertainers evolved into a pathetic public figure and Lowest Common Denominator entertainment fodder. Almond skillfully uses this scenario to re-humanize Jackson, without exonerating him. One character has written a sociological paper on the fallen superstar, detailing Jackson's crumbling identity and face under a "Fame-Flagellation Nexus" and "Negative Attention Syndrome." Over backyard vodkas and beers, Jackson's abusive childhood is hashed over, but in the end, the narrator sees a bigger picture:
"I thought about the little girl I'd seen in the window, how she had offered up her performance to me. It was what children did, naturally — they drew love from the world. And they did so not because they were inherently good and pure, or any of that other Shirley Temple garbage. But just the opposite: because they knew how much the world could hurt them at any time, how quickly the fates could turn, and this made them desperate to charm."
This is Almond's modus operandi — typically inconsequential moments fraught with deeper meanings. Most of the stories succeed within this tried-and-true formula, but the one tale in B.B. Chow that breaks from Almond's traditional story type is the surreal "Lincoln, Arisen." It is a shape-shifting reinvention of the raft trip down the Mississippi from Twain's Huckleberry Finn, only with President Lincoln and Frederick Douglass as raftmates. The story recalls George Saunders' (Civilwarland In Bad Decline) wonderfully wacky universe, and is a real change-of-pace from Almond's grounded works. In the end, this story and B.B. Chow in toto suggest that Almond, a supremely gifted craftsman already, has an imagination to match.