Writer Steve Almond has a way of writing about people who may be seen as life’s losers, are living on society’s fringe, or are totally deluded about their greatness. But, he does it in a way that makes you feel empathy for these people, including the sad sack protagonists found in the pages of his latest book, a collection of short stories called God Bless America.
“God Bless America” is the first story in Almond’s collection. Working as a drug store stock boy, a young man finds himself unexpectedly taking an acting class when he signed up for something different (this happened when he got lost at local adult education center). He somehow convinces himself that he is a Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt in the making even though his acting talent can be called marginal at best. He doesn’t reach leading man status but does become a tour guide in Boston (hey, in a way he is “performing” and has an “audience”), which gets him involved in some criminal activity.
“In Not Until You Say Yes”, a widowed woman, still supporting her adult children (and not happy about it), works a thankless security job at the Logan airport in Boston. Her day gets much more challenging (it’s not like she doesn’t have enough on her plate) when she is assigned to look after a young boy who keeps getting bumped off overbooked flights to make a little extra money. Will she grow fond of this little rascal or will he work her last nerve?
In “Shotgun Wedding” a woman works as a copywriter for a “hip, cool boutique ad agency” but her so-called creative job is empty and soulless. To make matters worse, her period is late and she’s feeling the possible effects of morning sickness. Could she be pregnant? Too scared to find out, she resists taking the “rabbit test” at her doctor’s office or through a home test. Why? She wonders how her possible delicate condition may affect her fiancé, who is currently in Milwaukee and more focused on his career than being a father. If she’s pregnant will her fiancé step up to the plate and be a father or will she have to go it alone?
“First Date Back” is one story in God Bless America that truly got to me. In this story, a soldier comes back to the United States and develops a wee bit of ardor for a flight attendant on the flight home. This young woman realizes the soldier isn’t exactly prepared for life back in the United States. She takes pity on him and agrees to go out on a date with the young man even though she isn’t exactly into him. The young veteran, confused and lonely, takes her one act of compassion for true love, and the results are heartbreaking. You might want to have tissues nearby when you read the “First Date Back.”
God Bless America concludes with “A Dream of Sleep”. Wolf is a cemetery caretaker, confused by the world outside. He keeps himself confined in the cemetery, making sure it and its deceased citizens are well taken care of, and rarely ventures outside its confines. He lives and works most of his days in solitude. Living in mostly solitude, Wolf’s life is upended by a young girl who sneaks into the old cemetery to have sex with her boyfriend. She also appears to be pregnant with said boyfriend’s child. Will Wolf kick this girl out or will he take her under his protective wing and connect with the world outside?
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Almond’s stories, even though they sometimes made me uncomfortable and yes, cry. Almond is a writer’s writer, writing with empathy, clarity and true understanding of the interesting characters that make up our odd society here in the United States. Almond inspires you to care about these characters, but is never preachy about it.
I for one, consider it to be a blessing I discovered God Bless America and the talents of Steve Almond. And I’m thrilled to find out he has written other books, which I am sure I will add to my reading list.