God Bless America could almost be read as thirteen irreverent prayers: Dear [Whomever]: save us from our smallness. But no prayer will make you laugh the way Steve Almond does with his newest collection of stories, one of which was included in America’s Best, another in the Pushcart Prize Anthology. In Almond’s America, parents and children, TSA agents and smart-mouthed kids, horny Jews and voyeuristic mothers do embody American tics and isms—racism and escapism to name just a couple—but they’re at their most tragic when they orbit around each other, failing to connect. Time and again, as Almond’s characters almost touch (sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally), there’s a nearly visceral hesitation: will they or won’t they do it? I’m not talking about sexual tension, though Almond writes that better than most; I’m talking about voluntary compassion. God Bless America’s gospel lies in this weighty pause: will the characters love thy brother (father, lover, customer, soldier, stranger, baby), or will they fail to love? We watch them do both. As a result, the heart of this work glows with a truth both radical and ancient: we are implicated in each other’s need.
In the story “A Dream of Sleep,” caretaker Wolf Pinkas would like to be left alone with his sorrow, his music, and his headstones. He’d like to be left, in other words, to his loneliness. As the city prepares to make an event center out of his cemetery (also his home and livelihood), Wolf begins to “harbor the conscious wish that he were no longer alive.” About the same time and in the dark of night, he hears noises from the children’s cemetery that turn out to be a young girl delivering a baby: “...her legs thrown open. Her monstrous belly heaved under a glaze of sweat.” Wolf struggles to help the girl but not without resentment. He didn’t ask to be handed another person’s need, yet it up and wailed outside his walls. Throughout this life, Wolf has reckoned with the tense, tender waltz of human longing, as both giver and receiver:
[Wolf’s] father set flowers on the dark soil of a grave mound. His sisters—in pinafores and terrified smiles—sang him to sleep. And later, when the war was over and the killing had stopped, he staggered alone into a field and came upon a naked girl, perhaps thirteen, who stared at him from the place where she would perish, whispering her terrible wish. She wanted to be held.
As did the baby delivered in his cemetery, as did the girl who, in the dark of night, delivered her. When Wolf intervenes, when he helps the girl, “holds her” in his way, it is insufficient. Wolf says to the new mother what is arguably (intermittently) true for many of Almond’s characters: “I tried to save. Do you understand? I am doing what I can.”
If you breathe on this earth, Almond seems to say, you are implicated. Consider poor Dempsey:
[Wolf] treated his cats to a bit of meat each day. He had not intended to keep pets. No, the cats had come to him. Dempsey was a large orange tom with frayed ears and a left eye that had been battered into a rakish wink. Coal, a skeletal black kitten, had arrived on a frosty morning and immediately, to the distress of all involved parties, attempted to suckle Dempsey.
Though there’s something begrudging in the giving, there’s much hope, too. For as Almond flashes ugly truths—generosity is work—he also whacks us upside the heart with hope. The redemption is this: Almond is no hypocrite; the love and forgiveness his stories demand of us he offers his characters in abundance. As a result, we ache for the jilter and the jilted, often as we’re laughing at the mess in which we, too, are implicated. Both the message and the delivery are downright subversive.
For the good news, Almond seems to say, is also the bad news: we are each other’s salvation. Like kind, curmudgeonly Mr. Albert in “Hope Wood,” who feels “disappointed in the entire species,” who makes art out of abandoned junk by painting in “colors so bright [you] could taste them,” who nonetheless feeds a few unemployed, mostly incompetent philosophers, relating to them with a compassion that is trustworthy for its weatherworn resign--Almond loves his characters even when they fail to deserve it. And to our delight, so do we. In loving them, we become a little more humane, a little less small. What’s true of Mr. Albert’s art is doubly apt for Almond’s: “The work was lousy with redemption. You couldn’t look at it for very long without wanting to forgive someone.”
Jennifer Bowen Hicks is the assistant nonfiction editor for Hunger Mountain and a Loft Mentor Series finalist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, The Rumpus, Defunct, and from Connotation Press.
God Bless America
Lookout Books, October 2011