If the title of Steve Almond’s debut collection of short stories hints at big hair, loud guitars, and Real World–style confessionals, then that is an accident by design. Confession, after all, is the hallmark of first-person narration, a device Almond relies on heavily. And though these slice-of-life tales about lusty and love-stricken twenty- and thirtysomethings have almost nothing at all to do with heavy metal (excepting the title story), they do share one common trait with the genre: the attempt to elevate adolescent male fantasy into an art form.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the title story, wherein David, a music reviewer covering the Ratt-Poison-Winger circuit for an El Paso newspaper in the late ’80s, has a revelation at a Skid Row concert. The fans, he realizes, are " kids lousy with the bad hormones of adolescence, humiliated by the poverty of their prospects. " And their unified headbanging " was their dance, their chance to be part of some larger phallic brotherhood. "
Yet David, like so many of Almond’s protagonists, is not immune to that fraternal impulse. When his live-in girlfriend, Jo (whose taste in Latin jazz and ambitious friends he privately scorns), discovers him flagrante delicto with a nerdy YMCA lifeguard named Claudia, he’s shattered. Sort of. He muses sententiously that " we are all punished, in the end, for the degradations we inflict upon those who love us. " Yet in looking back at his affair, he can’t help thinking he was doing something " radical, kickass, " since it brought him into " the blessed province of poontang. " Such sentiments come from the heart of arrested adolescence, and Almond enjoys taking its pulse.
Sex and infatuation figure prominently in most of these stories, and nearly all of Almond’s characters — players, prevaricators, and professional pussyhounds — have a difficult time making sense of their urges and impulses, even when they’re forced to confront the consequences of their transgressions. In " The Last Single Days of Victor Potapenko, " we follow a boardwalk hustler and pick-up artist everyone calls the Don as he tries to evade some thuggish Romanians whose young cousin he may or may not have impregnated. The recent high-school grad who narrates " Valentino, " on the other hand, is searching desperately for a little tenderness; his friend Holden — who holds forth on his theory of beauty-as-power ( " Who fucked Bono before he was Bono? No one, that’s who. Ugly chicks, maybe. " ) and who later beds Tommy’s mentally unstable mother — is just desperate.
Bad matches and drunken passes are recurring plot points in these tales of erotic misadventure. So it’s no surprise that emotional confusion reigns in the end, despite the author’s attempts to tidy up the sheets with post-coital epiphanies. Almond, who teaches creative writing at Boston College, is adept at evoking ambivalence and regret; one story ( " Among the Ik " ) even sees him exploring a widower’s grief with an idea borrowed from the work of anthropologist Margaret Mead.
More than anything, though, this author excels at capturing the pinwheeling physicality of sex, and he does so with a devilish sense of humor. (One couple’s lovemaking, in his hands, resembles a " ridiculous flying machine in two clamped parts. " ) He also has a knack for mapping the rubbery topography of bodies, right down to the nuances of odor and taste.
But for all the sophisticated beauty and humor of such passages, Almond’s stories are too narrowly conceived, too insular; the outside world rarely intrudes. For all that the diverse settings include El Paso, Warsaw, Moscow, Athens, Washington (DC), and Newton, the action could just as easily be confined to the same generic place. One story blithely begins, " I had just moved from a small city to a big one. "
More aggravating is Almond’s habit of delivering bons mots through his emotionally immature narrators, who — when they aren’t confessing to prurient obsessions — are made to say things like " The heart is not only a lonely hunter, though it is certainly that. It is a drowning salesman, a bloodied clown, an incurable disease. We pay dearly for its every decision. " And, " What we want is the glib aria of disastrous love, which is, finally, the purest expression of self-contempt. "
Maybe self-obliteration really is at the end of every carelessly indulged erotic impulse, as it is often the unconsciously stated goal of a writer. Then again, as an Almond character says, perhaps " No one — except those paid to listen — really wants to hear " these " musty songs of self-contempt. "
Steve Almond reads on June 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Newtonville Books, 296 Walnut Street, Newton. Call (617) 244-6619.