Publishers are notoriously reluctant to take on story collections, perhaps in part because unlike novels, a story collection has to justify its own existence. It isn’t enough for a story collection to be well written, poignant and intelligent. Why, readers ask themselves, have these eight to 12 stories been juxtaposed between the same covers?
In his debut book of short fiction, “My Life in Heavy Metal,” author Steve Almond (he also authored a work of nonfiction titled “Candyfreak”) gave us 12 brash stories that read like reports dashed off from the front lines in the romantic wars between the sexes. Refreshingly frank and often brutally funny, his collection dared readers to confront the complexity of eroticism, a subject all too often skipped over in literary fiction.
At first, Almond’s new book, “The Evil B. B. Chow and Other Stories,” seems to pick up where his first collection left off. In the title story, told by a white woman with an unexplainable yen for a nerdy Asian doctor who’s a terrible lover, Almond shows the inexplicability of sexual attraction. “Here’s what has me baffled: the sex was good,” the story’s unnamed narrator laments. “It’s like the bar is set so low with this guy, we can’t help but get over. Which we do. We get over. Twice.” Almond convincingly narrates from the female point of view, both in this story and in the amusing yet poignant “Wired for Life,” which is about another white woman with a fetish for an Asian man. (This time he’s a computer repairman.)
These two stories of doomed love seem more deeply felt than Almond’s work in “Heavy Metal,” probably because the humor is tinged with a note of sadness, even desperation. This feeling also haunts two brief dreamy interludes that feel more like tone poems than like stories: “A Happy Dream” and “Summer, As in Love.”
Melancholy permeates a few of Almond’s stories that aren’t about dating — for example, “I Am as I Am,” a tragic examination of a boy’s guilt after he accidentally kills a teammate on the baseball field. Another tale of a family grappling with loss, “The Problem of Human Consumption,” is a more straightforward and therefore predictable tale of a widower and his rebellious daughter coping with the loss of the man’s wife.
Two of the stories in “B.B. Chow” fit into the “writing about writing” mode. The first, “Appropriate Sex,” portrays the sexual tension between a depressed writing teacher and a seductive student and is set, a bit gratuitously, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The plot of forbidden teacher-student attraction is hardly innovative, and Almond doesn’t break much new ground here. With “Larsen’s Novel,” however, he conjures a blistering send-up of contemporary trends in writing, as well as a thoughtful meditation on the need to make art out of one’s life. “What a beautiful thing it was,” Almond writes, “to leave your inheritors this gaudy, ill-fated record of who you were.”
The rest of the stories lean heavily on the oddity of their conceits. “The Sole Molecule,” about a family convinced that they’re aliens, plays like an extended joke. “Skull” also comes across as a joke, albeit a powerful one about an unusual form of sexual play that suggests the limitless possibilities of erotic love. Then there’s “Lincoln, Arisen,” a series of imaginary riffs between our 16th president and Frederick Douglass that don’t lead anywhere.
What do all these stories have in common? Good question. Almond is clearly a gifted writer, yet as a book, “B.B. Chow” feels more like a collection of B-sides than like a coherent whole. While the theme of dating and sexual politics repeats itself at times, it isn’t as consistent as it was in “Heavy Metal.” In terms of style, Almond’s smooth conversational prose hums along, livened by unexpectedly brilliant gems, like a patch of red dirt darkened by blood that looks like “chocolate cake batter” in “I Am as I Am.” Yet, unlike that of David Foster Wallace or Rick Moody, Almond’s style is not quite individual enough to warrant showcasing for its own sake. When the quality of the finished product is so profound, as with Alice Munro’s books, or Michael Byers’s debut collection “The Coast of Good Intentions: Stories,” we excuse a story collection for its lack of unity. “B.B. Chow,” however, though often quite good, doesn’t achieve that kind of brilliance. So while I’m glad a talented writer like Almond is expanding his range and playing in different modes, I’d be even more excited to see what he could do if he would settle down on one theme and explore it in depth.
Aaron Hamburger is the author of “The View From Stalin’s Head” (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004) and the forthcoming novel “Faith for Beginners.”
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The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories
By Steve Almond
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 248 pages, $22.95.