Here are some reviews of my book that don't suck. For the ones that suck, check out Roadog: the Movie. If you want to review the book for Amazon, please do, as more people read those reviews than the ones in newspapers. I have also provided a link to a printer-friendly version for each review.
Author Forges Vivid Stories of Longing in "Heavy Metal"
To say that Steve Almond writes about sex is like saying that Tim O'Brien writes about war: Though it's often true, it's incomplete and, more important, comes close to missing the point.
In this book, his first collection of fiction, Almond writes graphically, vividly, and with unflinching detail about relationships, mostly between men and women, in and out of bed. At times it's the hum of conquest in the air that drives a story, but at least as often it's something more complicated: the potential for love, for salvation, the possibility of possibility.
The author, who teaches creative writing at Boston College and Emerson College and has taught for Grub Street Writers, comes across as an expert eavesdropper. The characters in his stories have discrete, authentic voices, whether it's the rock journalist in the title story, the grandfather in "Among the Ik," or a recent high school graduate in small-town Iowa in "Valentino." We get more than three pages into "Geek Player, Love Slayer" before it's clear that the narrator is a woman. It's hard to imagine that Almond didn't want it that way.
More than anything, he makes us believe in the longing that consumes these people, whether it's physical or (at the risk of sounding lofty) metaphysical. Although the guy covering the pop- music beat for an El Paso daily has a lot of the qualities you'd expect in someone who won't miss a Guns N' Roses concert to accompany his girlfriend to a wedding, he is surprisingly tender, as when he narrates, "I didn't love her as she loved me. What other sin is there, finally?" It's not the last time Almond gives us someone who doesn't quite add up - which is often what makes his characters so distinctive.
He writes in a way that is consistently clever and muscular and frequently moving. His care with details gives his images their spark and makes most of these 12 stories genuinely memorable. In "Run Away, My Pale Love," he brings to life this simple picture of Ka to wi ce, Poland: "Basha and I took the tram to the central plaza, with its smooth new cobblestone and stately, gabled buildings, refurbished with foreign money and painted in cake- frosting colors."
Two paragraphs and several drinks later, this follows: "Then we were outside, on the stumbling cobblestone, under the splotchy moon."
The sexual nature of many of Almond's stories is impossible to capture in this newspaper. He writes about sex explicitly, but also subtly, as in a line that describes Basha: "Afterward, her body looked like something tossed ashore."
It is the book's softer moments that have the ability to haunt us. In "Among the Ik," we read about a recently widowed man who struggles through a visit from his kids, their spouses, and his granddaughter (a baby he thought "looked a little like a Jewish gangster)."
Almond writes: "Connie's death had not been sudden. But Rodgers had somehow experienced it as sudden, not quite believing until belief was no longer a choice but a condition." The story's conclusion can't help but make us break down a bit.
"Geek Player," on the other hand, has its share of silly dialogue, though it's clear that the author thinks it's silly, too. A stupid bit of conversation is followed by an "Oh please" from another character, just when we might have been thinking it. In another story we get "Spare me" in reaction to a bit of philosophizing that goes over the top.
As for philosophy, we get what seems like a glimpse of Almond's politics in "How to Love a Republican." The story tells of the relationship between Billy, a young liberal Democrat, and Darcy, a Republican who works on John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, then George W. Bush's. It's exceptionally funny. At one point the couple is in bed, and Billy can't shake the image of James Baker; at another, Almond writes that "Al Gore was on CNN, imitating someone made of flesh." Neither the two major candidates nor the media that cover the election are beyond the narrator's - or the author's - reproach.
Ultimately, what many of these people share is expressed by the narrator of "Run Away, My Pale Love": "I was ravenous for a love so grandiose as to obliterate my life." In "My Life in Heavy Metal," we encounter a series of sharply drawn characters and see their desires profound and fleeting, how some are fed while others starve. That Steve Almond can capture such depth in a short story is a remarkable thing.
The stories in Steve Almond's "My Life in Heavy Metal" (Grove Press, $23) are like the music the title piece is named after -- raw, furious, sex-fueled groping postured as as an attempt to feel real in wild rebellion, but betraying a deeper layer of longing and lonliness.
These are the chronicled passions of flings and affairs where many of the characters seek to find themselves in the Morse code of intimacy with somebody else. A rock concert reviewer, living with a sophisticated beauty he doesn't love, can't stay away from the sweet, simple lifeguard who has freakish orgasms. A sharp-witted, slang-talking reporter sliding into middle age is tormented with lust for the office computer guy. An ungrounded American graduate student becomes lost in playing tourist to love in Poland.
Almond writes these stories with an honesty, like confession. His conversational prose reveals the naked inner monologue of fascination and self-doubt with each human encounter.
With the exception of the preachiness of "The Pass" -- a series of thin vignettes showcasing sterotyped characters trying to hook-up -- the tale-telling in "My Life in Heavy Metal" reads like a straight-talking journal.
The many intimate scenes are reported with the tactile details and reverent tones a hot-rod fanatic might use to describe overhauling an engine. Bodies are examined with awe for their aestheticism and mechanics, then revved up for a drive.
Almond, who once worked as a features writer at the El Paso Times, set his title story in this city during the height of heavy-metal mania. He uses a Motley Crue concert to show the gap between the narrator, who has grown to appreciate the primal power of this low-brow genre, and his girlfriend, Jo, who prefers more buttoned-up fare.
"The bass started in, along with the drums; the plastic seats began to quiver. Then a noise like wheels hitting a runway, which meant the guitars, churning down to their appointed chords. Jo looked as if she'd been struck in the back of the head with an eel. I'd given her a pair of earplugs, but the effect of 105 decibels is as much seismic as auditory. Strobe lights popped. (Vince) Neil howled. His voice was a rapture of violent want, released to the crowd and returned in ululating waves. All around us, skinny boys emptied their bodies of sound. Everything about them banged. Bang, bang, bang. Their hair whipped up in the air, their slender arms knifed around us."
The thread to it all that Almond seems to be weaving is a sort of self-medication. By turning up the sensory input, those who have been numbed by disappointment in love may hope to come alive and begin to find their way.
Kate Gannon is an editor with the El Paso Times. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Debut collection with no holds barred
FIRST books of fiction are hit and miss, more often than not timid works that desperately attempt to be universally pleasing and almost always never feature a line that could possibly offend.
Well, there's nothing timid about Steve Almond's My Life in Heavy Metal. The 12 stories that make up the collection are frank and candid and obsessive.
Almond's obsession is the relationship between men and women, and he explores that relationship not in the sterile way so many of his predecessors have done but as explicitly as Henry Miller did. Unlike Miller, though, Almond's rendering of sex is not one that excludes the woman. Almond is rhapsodic without being false, without relying on stereotypes.
The main characters in the stories are usually men in their 20s, and they resemble each other so much that it's hard not to think of the stories as autobiography, of the book as a loosely woven episodic coming-of-age novel. The narrators might be young, but they are also wise, and this is perhaps the greatest strength of My Life in Heavy Metal.
When Almond writes of sex, which is often, he presents it in stark form, showing the act in its physical, mental and spiritual aspects. For Almond, the sex act is not something that needs to be hidden by blackouts, nor is it something that needs to be overblown for shock value.
In How to Love a Republican, for instance, the narrator, a lobbyist for the political left, is dating a woman who is a lobbyist for Republican causes. As he does often in the book, Almond uses their sex life not as a dirty digression but as a chance to expound on sex's relationship to the world at large. Sex becomes both act and metaphor, something splendid and something to consider in its relationship to the society.
At the end of the story, when the couple has broken up and moved on, reminiscing about Darcy, the narrator says, "And she would grow more achingly beautiful by the year, as our regrets inevitably do."
In other places, most notably in the title story and in the closing story, The Body in Extremis, Almond writes with a combination of graphic flair and poignancy, and the result is a heady combination of sadness and the rueful wisdom that invariably ensues. At the end of that final story, Almond concludes:
My Life in Heavy Metal is not only about sex, though. Almond's stories are about a wide range of characters, from barflies to small-time thugs to office professionals to computer "geeks," as they are called in Geek Player, Love Slayer.
Almond is neither coy nor understated. His work is musky and lustily comic, heady without being sterile, coarse without being puerile. There is a careful balance between love and lust in these stories; every time the reader begins to tire of the bawdiness of bodily fluids and "big meat," Almond serves up a dose of poignancy and even wisdom.
If My Life in Heavy Metal is any indicator of the quality of young writers in America today, then we have great things to look forward to. Almond is a brilliant craftsman. But more, he is a writer who knows us as well as we know ourselves.
Eric Miles Williamson is on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and he is an editor of American Book Review. A former Houstonian, he lives in Missouri with his wife, Judy, and is at work on his second novel, Mama's Boy.
"Fourteen delightful debut stories more often than not about man's powerlessness in the face of feminine beauty. "What we want is the glib aria of disastrous love, which is, finally, the purest expression of self-contempt," Almond tells us, though the range of love taken up here suggests that another part of him knows better. In the title story, a young man who covers heavy metal bands for a local newspaper learns of humanity's necessary failures when he discovers his own propensity for betrayal. "Among the Ik" is a touching tale of an academic's grief and impending mortality told through the retold story of his having once been called upon to identify the body of a student. "The Last Single Days of Don Viktor Potapenko" features a lewd but oddly wise barfly in pre-casino Atlantic City who passes his weird wisdom onto our slumming teenaged narrator; and in "Geek Player, Love Slayer," a woman's fascination with a dimwitted officemate becomes a modern anti-love story and a catalogue of all the MTV turns of phrase most would find artless. A boy in "Valentino" fails to come of age but succeeds in learning something of small-town romance, while "The Pass" is an anthropologically toned multicharacter treatment of the traditional sloppy initiation of affection, and "How to Love a Republican" is a love story set during the Bush-Gore election debacle. Almond is at his best when emotion moves his plots and not the other way around, but even his misses are better than most first-time authors' hits. There may be occasional repetitiveness to overcome, and the kinds of sex here may repel some, but more important is Almond's realization that in all love stories "There is a point you reach, I mean, whenyou are just something bad that happened to someone else." Love, or at least sex, everywhere in dirty brilliances that are set amid merely lewd victories."
Book Review; Features Desk
My Life in Heavy Metal
In this slim debut collection of stories, Steve Almond chronicles the lives of men and women--teenagers, twentysomethings and thirtysomethings--as they veer between boring office jobs and stints as expatriates, using their sexual curiosity like antennae probing an alien landscape. Almond, likewise, has acute sensors when it comes to the sociological and sexual intersections of modern life. In the title story, a guy moves to El Paso after college to take a newspaper job that, much to his girlfriend's dismay, requires him to report on--and become somewhat obsessed with-the endless series of hair bands--Skid Row, Motley Crue, Guns N' Roses--that come through town.
In "Geek Player, Love Slayer," a 33-year-old woman gets the hots for the improbably sexy office computer tech and poses the ponderable question, "How did Computer Guy become the Lifeguard of the decade?" And in "The Pass," a narrator examines why pickup lines have become so passe: "the pass is what semioticians would call a lapsed signifier."
Almond's eye for modern types is impeccably, almost academically, sharp, and yet these stories, slight as they sometimes are, never come across as schoolwork. They're too funny, and, like the jilted sex buddy of "The Body in Extremis," a story that echoes Mary Gaitskill and Matthew Klam, they're determinedly "softhearted and hopeful."
Typically lacking the harmony of the efforts of more seasoned writers, first story collections can be a spotty read. Stories from young writers tend to bounce around in point-of-view, setting and theme, and often tread the well- worn ruts of the masters. The reader can almost feel the writer casting about trying to find his or her voice.
"My Life in Heavy Metal," though, the first from Boston writer Steve Almond, proves an exception and is a delightful, assured first collection. The stories are remarkably wide-ranging in setting and subject, most dealing with the traditional fodder of love and loss. Almond observes from a different vantage, though, and stories easily shrugged off end up having curious power and are by turns laugh-out-loud funny and tremendously sad.
In the title story, a man's obsession with the testosterone-driven glam- rock bands he reviews makes him blind to his increasingly egregious transgressions of trust and fidelity. "The Pass" is a carefully structured dissection of the ways men and women put their desires into motion, and the pain, sadness and confusion those desires often reap. "Run Away, My Pale Love" follows a graduate student's ethereal affair with a Polish classmate, tracing their journey to Poland, where, with the veil of fantasy lifted, their vast cultural differences and obstinacies lead to a final, bitter goodbye.
Whether he's writing from the point of view of a lonely female reporter in her 30s, pining for her company's tech support guy (in "Geek Player, Love Slayer"), or a young man witnessing his first catfight on the streets of Athens ("Pornography"), Almond fills each story with esoteric details and creates sharply drawn characters that other writers might only faintly limn.
In spite of its range of themes, settings and voices, the collection is remarkably cohesive, the unifying factor being Almond's vibrant prose. Though occasionally overreaching, Almond's language is rendered in precise strokes, void of bland modernist generalities, with metaphors so original and spot-on that they read like epiphanies. "My Life in Heavy Metal" is a fine introduction to a deft new storyteller.
'My Life' is fresh set of short tales
This is the coolest and freshest collection of short stories I've read since the 1980s. While his contemporaries turn to novels and screenplays, Steve Almond has been publishing zeitgeist short fiction everywhere from Playboy to the literary journal Ploughshares.
All 12 of these stories deal with sex and regret. In the title story, David, a rock journalist in his 20s, tries to translate the adolescent ethos of rock and roll into his own love life and pays the adult price.
"Geek Player, Love Slayer," an office romance between a female reporter and "Computer Boy," is less successful, but still intriguingly of our time. "How did Computer Boy become the Lifeguard of our decade?" the narrator wants to know.
"Run Away My Pale Love" returns the reader to David. He's older and courting a local in Poland. Different country, similar screw- ups: "There is a point you reach when you are just something bad that happened to someone else."
"Moscow" is filler, a track you would skip if this were a CD. Almond's writing is mostly first-rate, clear and perceptive, but he teaches creative writing at Boston College and his weaker stories seem designed for classroom consumption.
"How to Love a Republican" cranks things back up. Two political junkies pathetically destroy their attraction to each other against the backdrop of the Bush-Gore 2000 election.
The final story again features David, who is now a teacher in his 30s. David becomes involved with a 22-year-old woman and, unsurprisingly enough, screws up again. "But I am certain that you, too, have some episode in your life that lines up against this one, some mad period of transgression in which your body, your foolish body, led you toward tender ruin."
"My Life in Heavy Metal" by Steve Almond Grove, $23