Dispatches: Steve Almond, Breaking Hearts at Greenlight
Last week at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, author Steve Almond was joined by New Yorker editor and longtime friend Ben Greenman for the launch of his latest book, God Bless America: Stories, a collection of short fiction.
The two met in the early 90s when they were both writing for the Miami New Times, an alternative weekly newspaper in Florida. As with most events where the two people know each other, the discussion was engrossing, revealing, and amusing.
Steve’s wry sense of humor, a quality that often lays itself bare on the page, is even more pronounced in person—at one point he needled the crowd about New Yorkers reluctance to laugh, which thereby got a laugh and lightened the mood for the rest of the evening. He started out by reading from “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” a story where a psychoanalyst with a secret gambling habit winds up at a poker table with an ex-patient. “Donkey Greedy,” Steve admits is the one story where he lands the plot; otherwise, he says, his style is very primitive and instead rests mainly on character.
Moral is a word often ascribed to Steve and his work. Whether it’s his fiction or his essays for The Rumpus—his latest, “Occupy Your Conscience: A Rumpus Exaltation,” a laudatory defense of the Occupy Wall Street protesters and critical look at the media who distort their message—Steve wears his liberal upbringing and current day politics on his sleeve. In 2006, the Boston Globe ran his resignation letter to Boston College, where he was an adjunct professor, after the school invited Condoleezza Rice to give the commencement speech.
If you think, as I first did when I heard the title, that God Bless America is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, you’d be wrong. Written during the past decade, the stories are a culmination of Almond’s experience in America during this time. A self-described “heartbroken patriot” he sets out to reclaim the phrase, to make it more honest and wrest it from the hands of political sloganeers.
Almond sees American culture as many of us do: hyperactive, splintered, fragmented, and visual-centric. In a world with Facebook, Twitter, and Smartphones he believes there’s a lack of boredom in our lives and, as someone who sees boredom as a laboratory, he mourns its passing. “Attention is a dwindling resource,” he says. As a writer, and as someone who teaches writing, Almond feels it’s up to him and fellow writers to find ways to keep the literary arts vital, to combat our distracted, frenetic culture.
As an instructor at Grub Street Writers, an independent center for creative writing, he’s noticing a trend, a modern-day gimmick that placates to our bad habits: increasingly fledgling writers are beginning their stories in the middle of an action scene without any reference to who the people are and why they’re in a particular situation. He points to Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow as the antithesis of this seemingly new approach: a story that opens by laying it all out on the first page, not with guns blazing in the midst of confusion.
Although Steve calls this new collection “very sad and very dark,” there are moments of levity. In the title story, the protagonist, a naive and delusional Boston-area tour guide with aspirations of becoming an actor, gives a hilarious view of American history, a nod to Steve’s own political leanings:
It was unfortunate that not all guides shared Billy’s enthusiasm. But what Billy had learned by studying his country’s history was that America had been built by opportunists. It was a large and prosperous country and one that could accommodate the less enthused . . . But this was America, the land of opportunists, and here it wasn’t enough to want something. You had to fight for what you wanted and fight hard, fight through your own resistance and the jeers of others and physical adversity, which was what the Pilgrims had done vis-a-vis the whole Thanksgiving situation, and after them the colonists, who had bucked the most powerful empire on earth even though they were basically just a bunch of underfed tax evaders. . . . it showed how far some people would go to find good property.
During his talk with Greenman, Almond said he believes all writers are really writing about is their family—always working out issues. Whether this rings true for others, it’s clearly Steve’s approach. Now a father and at the age where one’s parents are reaching the end of their lives, the stories pivot on the notion that family life in America is deteriorating: our myth of rugged individualism has advanced at the expense of community and perpetuated a pathological disconnection from our loved ones.“What the Bird Says” highlights these current preoccupations of Steve’s—and echos the concerns of many of us who are moving along with him. In this story a dying father calls his estranged son to his death bed, presumably to reconcile, but the humiliation and shame he feels from his vulnerability trumps his goodwill; his behavior remains the same.
At Greenlight Steve mentioned his desire to ”break the reader’s heart”. If this is his aim, he should consider his new book a success. God Bless America is a mature work offering a profound experience for those looking to examine the times in which we live.
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
Birds of America: Stories by Lorrie Moore
Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
God Bless You Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
Stoner by John Williams
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Philby George Saunders
Interview with The Rumpus
Steve Almond on WTF with Marc Maron
Interview with the Other People podcast
Steve’s essay about Occupy Wall Street in The Rumpus
Steve Almond’s 2006 resignation letter in the Boston Globe (subscription only)
Steve’s recent flash fiction story at Tin House