The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories
By Steve Almond (Algonquin, 248 pp., $22.95)
Isaiah Berlin famously divided people into two types: hedgehogs, who know one thing and know it well; and foxes, who know lots of things, but know them superficially. Short-story writer Steve Almond is a hedgehoghis knowledge, as well as his writing talent, revolves exclusively around the physical element of human relationships. How, he asks over and over, do we relate to each other as bodies, as animals, as masses of desires and fears and wants and needs? This is the stomping ground of the Steve Almond story. If you're looking for ruminations on the meaning of life, look elsewhere.
The Evil B.B. Chow is Almond's second story collection, but it is extremely similar in tone and focus to his first, My Life in Heavy Metal (Grove, 2002). In between, he published a quixotic study of the American candy bar, Candyfreak (Algonquin, 2004), in which he toured the country looking for oddball confections, all the while riffing on the history of candy and the state of the industry. Candyfreak is a fun book, though weak in parts, and it's good to see Almond return to what he does best.
However, given the way Almond has been pigeonholed, what he does best is not always obvious to the casual reader. My Life in Heavy Metal, which among other things included several searingly concrete portraits of modern romance intertwined with achingly explicit love scenes, established him as a "sex" writer, someone who revels in the prurient and pornographic side streets of American literature. It's not necessarily a bad or unprofitable place to be, especially if you're a college creative-writing teacher (as Almond is). Today he's a virtual staple of the soft-core lit press, regularly writing for Nerve.com and Playboy.
But Almond is much more than a "sex" writer, and if he often seems to lay on the physical a little thick, it's only because he clearly believes that beneath all human contact lies the desire for physical connection. For Almond, that connection is not always sexual. One of the best stories in this new collection is the misleadingly titled "Appropriate Sex," in which the reader is led to believe that a married college professor is on an assignational collision with Mandy, a young woman in his class; the teacher has been having marriage issues, and the class had just analyzed Mandy's sexually charged short story. She comes onto him in his office, but the teacher is put off: "There was something in [her] gestures, a certain rehearsed quality, that made me sad." The two are interrupted by Brendan, a male student from the same class; after Mandy departs in a huff, Brendan pours forth his own romance problems, problems that make the teacher reflect on how lucky he is to have, at least, a safe and comfortable marriage. The two end up bonding. "I know this sounds depressing," the teacher says, "but it was a lovely little moment, the both of us sitting there in my office with tears pooled in our eyes." Far from trying to get kicks out of a tale of student-teacher sex, Almond is flipping convention on its head. The physical connection he is looking for lies not in Mandy's promise, but in Brendan's loss.
"Summer, as in Love" is another strong story, largely because it is brief. Two lovers, graduate literature students, spend a summer together at a lake house. The story is explicitly sensual, melancholic and ultimately tragicthough telling more would give too much away. At the end you want the story to continue, but you realize that had Almond gone on, or fleshed out the story further, it would ruin the effect. The momentary, though quickly over, is often better than the drawn-outwhich is also the theme of the story. Rarely does a writer achieve such perfect unity of form and content.
That said, The Evil B.B. Chow is uneven, with a few strong stories intersected by several stinkers. The title story is a case in point: Much like the title story in Almond's first collection, "The Evil B.B. Chow" centers on a young female office worker who is drawn into a relationship with an odd but momentarily attractive man, all the while being coached by a catty office mate. (In this case, the oddball is a med student with social shortcomings and commitment issues.) In stark contrast to the collection's strongest stories, it is narrowly conceived, focused on the superficial considerations of today's young and oversexed. It's an office farce, a "love in the 21st century" tale that has none of the emotional payoff found in "Appropriate Sex."
Almond is better than this, and it's possible that he settles for writing such stories because they pay, they're in demand, and they're what he's told he "does best." Well, Steve, you can do better.
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