Tournament of Books 2015

Saturday, June 1st, 2002


My Life in Heavy Metal: Stories

by Steve Almond

A review by Kevin Sampsell

Steve Almond is the kind of writer that makes other writers jealous. Looking at his publishing credits is like reading a list of places where writers dream of landing: Zoetrope, Ploughshares, Tin House, Boulevard, Missouri Review, and even Playboy. You may think writers with accomplishments like that would be cranking out highly polished if not mediocre stories that appeal to everyone. This is simply not the case here. Almond's stories are indeed highly polished, but their passionate and horny philosophies are the stuff of brave truths and unwavering opinions sort of like if Bukowski got a degree in Psychology. So when his stories do some kiss-and-tell, you can bet there's going to be some kiss-and-contemplate shortly after. He can describe sex in so many wondrous ways ("freshening the bed with new commotions", "I felt my own body reaching ecstatically to repeat itself") and then meditate on the emotions of it all ("But then, always, there was the life beyond the mattress, and the long, uncertain evenings waiting, like children trapped at the grown-up table, till we could be excused to the pursuit of one another's bodies."). Most of the stories are about the classic male-female relationship dichotomy, after all.

In the collection's longest story, "How to Love a Republican", a bearded democrat finds an unexpected lover in the opposing party, and then finds his convictions getting in the way as the Gore-Bush election turns into a fiasco. Almond's narrator can't help but to get in a few solid punches on the elephant party. On Ronald Reagan: "The man who had allowed Big Business to run the country, slashed social programs, gorged the national debt on wacko military systems, funneled arms to Nicaraguan murderers, and just generally sodomized Mother Nature." As with many of the stories, it ends sadly, sometimes horribly, but Almond has a way of making the most bittersweet and humiliating moments into beautiful and resonant finales. In fact, Almond's narrators are always smart and wise (or at least wiser) by the end of the story. The hilarious "Geek Player, Love Slayer" puts a female voice on the workplace lust story that ends with the buff Computer Boy dancing the narrator to tears at an office party. "Valentino" stars a teen narrator trying to navigate his final days in a small town where his best friend oversees the dating scene with an all-knowing smirk. "Run Away, My Pale Love" has an aimless college student for a voice. He befriends an alluring Polish woman by asking her if she likes Jerzy Kosinski:

"Oh yah!" she said. "Have you read Painted Bird?"
"Sure," I said.
"Wow. It's hard to find anyone who's read Kosinski."
This was true. I myself, for instance, had not read Kosinski, though I'd heard he was quite good.
Almond takes us to all the treacherous, deviant, and awe-inspiring places that love and lust help create in our "human condition." And as in the best fiction, I could see him or anyone else living through all these tribulations and triumphs. It's a vastly entertaining ride.

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