(Not that You Asked) is a collection of essays written over a couple of years. Many of them had been previously published in a wide number of literary journals. It’s pretty amazing to read how many were snapped up within 2005 alone. Almond had been busy. He’d been appreciated. It’s no wonder then that there was a call to put those essays and more into this collection. I’m surprised that I only came across him last week.
Steve Almond is such a lad, and so good at writing us back into his teenage anxious inexperienced self with humour and insight. I can’t say I liked those teenage boys much, but I get it, the focus and embarrassment, the developing crushes and a basic horniness that doesn’t fade. The subtitle sums it up as those exploits could be called sexploits.
Sex is an undercurrent throughout, the tone is self-deprecating at times, and he is honest, bitingly so at times. (Not that You Asked) is divided up into sections and isn’t chronological but within each section, there is a linked theme to the rants, a specific theme or question. Titles such as Chestfro Agoniste catch your attention, especially since then he describes how he and his girlfriend, not a very nice one by the sounds of it, a bit of a sadist when he didn’t want her to be, well, they try to wax his chest hair. It doesn’t go well. The idea, the fantasy, was cruelly absent, instead he’s funny and blunt and in a list, he set up the hope. Then he says, “I don’t suppose I have to tell you that my expectations were a bit on the high side.” I like how he used different forms, going from a simple introduction, a list, then a set of disclaimers and explanations before getting down to the nitty gritty of wax, hair, blood, and tears. Yes, he cried. I like this about him, he tells us when he’s a wimp, even if it’s written with that tone of irony, you know that he sees himself clearly and finds it funny from this perspective as a dad in his forties even as parts are written in the present tense. Confusing? No. We trust him, enjoy this conversational feel to his essays in (Not that You Asked). I did anyway.
He mixed up style wise and it gives me permission to play with form. Almond used lists, the acts of a playwright, and even step-by-step instructions. Yes, those instructions, a lesson on how to write sex scenes, it’s one I want to share with friends and keep for myself, with some good advice for writers. Like the rest of his book, he combines a light touch with insightful comments. Step 5, “real people say all kinds of weird, funny things during sex, such as ‘I’m think I’m losing circulation’ and ‘I’ve got a cramp in my foot.’ In other words, be true to what really happens, the awkwardness, stickiness, and laughable moments. Noted.
Topics in (Not that You Asked) ranged from Red Sox (my least favourite chapter), to the legacy of Vonnegut, integrity in literature, the risks and responsibilities of critical bloggers, the sight of fake tits, roles of popular media, and becoming a dad. If there is a common thread here it’s hard to name directly. I can’t see it. Yet although I’m not sure how or why, I gladly went along with him, back and forth time wise. He pulls it together with a consistent style and voice that is smart and heartfilled, ironic and forgiving. I imagine sitting down at the kitchen table with him is just as full of silly anecdotes and insightful observations. It’s almost like we glimpse beyond the public wit of Almond and he undresses to explore this softer, thoughtful side.
The essay about Vonnegut ends with this after the death of the writer he’d admired for so long. “He leaves us his books, his pleas for kindness, his foolish hope for our salvation.”
And I see a similarity in Almond’s collection here. The book ends with a story about raising his baby daughter in Judaism even as if his family didn’t share that with him. “What we actually lacked was belief” he says of his own childhood. This essay is one of the most grown up, most vulnerable in the way he talks of faith, his wishes for his daughter and the pain his dad felt for not knowing the “possibility of some great spiritual bosom into which he might nestle and rest his weary bones.” Yes, even when he writes of deep feelings, his language keeps it grounded in a light way, funny, and a lad after all.
And for his daughter? “She will know where and who she came from. She will be loved, unreasonably. The rest is hers to determine.”
A sweet ending indeed.
You’d almost believe Almond grew up overnight. Gone is that sense of detached wit, and a gentle dad speaks directly to us of his hopes for her.
Almond’s (Not that You Asked) has a distinctive voice, horny, messy, honest, and smart. He’s got a big heart. This collection gave me permission to play with form, not to feel constricted to chronology and to trust the connections within the essays themselves. We all have stories that we write, a theme to our words, and a voice of our own making. It’s inspiring for me as an emerging writer.
(Not that You Asked) makes me want to read more of his work, to appreciate and see how he does it in his short stories. Off to the library then.
Random House, 2007
288 pp $14.00