September 14, 2007

“(Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits and Obsessions” by Steve Almond

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

Steve Almond credits, or blames, Kurt Vonnegut for turning him into a writer. Almond’s first book, 2002’s “My Life in Heavy Metal,” was one of the finest collections of short stories to emerge in the new millennium. It sold about as many copies as you would expect a collection of short stories by an unknown writer to sell. His next book, 2004’s “Candy Freak,” a humorous paean to the joys of chocolate, which I didn’t read, was a New York Times best-seller.

Almond no doubt picked up a lesson here: Quality fiction is a gamble, but funny nonfiction is money in the bank. Since he quit his day job as an adjunct professor at Boston College, Almond apparently needed cash. The result is this grab bag of exactly what the title promises: rants, exploits and obsessions, thematically linked by Almond’s struggle to be an old-school Vonnegut-like literary prophet in a new world where the written word is losing its weight.

Almond covers a lot of territory, riffing on blogs, Oprah and reality television, but let’s start with the day job he lost or, to be more specific, the day job he quit when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was invited to give a commencement speech at Boston College. He characterizes Rice as “a classically trained pianist and war criminal.” Almond is often given to overstatement for comic effect.

Opposing President Bush’s wrongheaded policies seems intelligent. Quitting a job where you contribute to the world in order to prove that you oppose the president’s wrongheaded policies seems, well, wrongheaded.

Almond, however, reaps some benefit from what could have been a poor career move: massive publicity, or massive at least compared to what a writer can normally expect. Suddenly Almond was all over the Internet, radio and television, including Fox News.

Almond is surprised, naively perhaps, by the thrashing he takes from all sides. He labels the right-wing media a “Hateocracy,” but unfortunately employs the same tactics he deplores, speaking in extremes and absolutes rather than in a measured dialogue more fitting to the complex arena of public policy.

“I had spent two weeks absorbing the pathologies of these people, and felt utterly defeated by the experience. My career as a demagogue of the left was officially over.”

Fortunately, Almond is a much better writer than he is demagogue, and he is much more at home with pop culture than politics, despite the fact that he does not watch television. “I have never actually owned a TV, a fact I mention whenever possible, in the hopes that it will make me seem noble and possibly lead to oral sex.”

Almond is a reader, a true devotee of the written word. The highlights of this book, what makes it a worthy addition to any home library, are his essays on Kurt Vonnegut, whom he memorializes with an appropriate mix of hero worship and critical scrutiny. Vonnegut’s central message, in Almond’s opinion, is that “despair is a form of hope,” and Almond admirably carries forth that theme here.