After reading Steve Almond’s essays on various sites in the past few months I wondered, when picking up Not That You Asked: Rants, Exploits and Obsessions, if perhaps a collection of his essays might be a bit too much puerile masculinity. Would his work come to sound like high school highjinks? The answer is no.
It’s not a new book. In fact it was published in 2007. (Go here for his more recent titles and tour dates.) But the self-deprecation and personal essays that fill this quick read are still very much in vogue. So is humor, a quality that seems most always to sell and keep us coming back for more.
Another element in vogue within the world of publishing is creating short sections, which Almond exacts in spades. After reading a few essays consecutively, though, one gets the sense she’s reading thoughts from a writer who 1) cannot hold a thought for more than some 90 seconds, 2) Cannot connect a series of thoughts together, and 3) doesn’t trust the reader to be able to do so either. After a book full of essays built on this system of comic strip after comic strip, I long for something longer, something to commit to.
The diversity of Almond’s topics though does keep us committed to the read. He mocks the Kingdom of Oprah, idolizes Kurt Vonnegut, exposes himself sexually, and fears he’s killing his newborn baby. Despite the fact I’m a baseball fan I skipped over the two essays on the Boston Red Sox; if I wanted to read play by plays I’d pick up a newspaper of last night’s game. Nor did the essays about pad thai or Tesla (the rock band) strike deeply.
One of my favorite parts was his lashing out on Oprah: “The truth is, I don’t give a shit how many books you sell. I don’t care how …many famous people you make cry. At the end of the day you’re a TV star. You show up on a tiny screen and give lonely people a place to park their emotions for an hour. You’re the world’s leading retailer of inspiration. You’re the Wal-Mart of Hope.” Go, man, go!
By the time we’ve read a couple of his essays on what he calls the “deplorable nature of literary fan”, the truth to his storytelling and self-deprecation hits a low point. The same is true of “Demagogue Days”, which brings to mind more attention seeking than bona fide activism against FOX News, war in the Middle East, and the Bush administration. Consider what he writes about himself and other “dumb ass adjuncts” who work for $5,000 per class:
“We do not, as a rule, teach for money. (My pay stub, when divided by the number of hours I worked teaching a class, came out to less than the minimum wage.) We teach because we dig teaching, because we enjoy our students.”
This and other arguments made throughout the piece, such as Almond’s disgruntlement that he wasn’t granted the promised 10 minutes but 25 seconds to bask in the FOX limelight, rang as hollow arguments to his sincerity in fighting what he called Hateocracy.
Furthermore, Almond’s overzealous use of Cantos, a la Dante’s Inferno, gave the essay not the literary cultural criticism he seems to have sought but rather chopped it so badly enough to read more like a reactionary blog post.
Overall I would recommend Almond’s book. Its humor and topical diversity make a good bathroom read. My conservative friends, however, would likely hurl it across the room, as the book jacket portends.
Goodreads members should/can read other reviews of this and other Almond books here.