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God Bless America: Stories by Steve Almond
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God Bless America: Stories

by Steve Almond

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I’ve been a big fan of Almond’s since his first story collection, My Life in Heavy Metal, which I re-read several times, and I’ve followed his career through all the subsequent story collections, books of essays, and the novel he co-wrote with Julianna Baggott. Through it all, Almond never disappoints. His language is always so simultaneously inventive and precise, plumbing the depths of characters whose weaknesses and worst instincts are all too familiar. Steve’s also got a strong iconoclastic/provocateur streak so he takes you to places some writers might not dare to go, as he holds up a mirror to sides of ourselves we might not always be the most proud of. God Bless America is another great collection, displaying his exceptional talent. The 13 stories in the collection are:

1. God Bless America – 15 pp – A very funny story in the rich vein of marvelously self-deluded protagonists. A young man who works as a stock boy in a drugstore accidentally takes an acting class at an adult education center. With no talent but a new passion for the dramatic arts and with dreams of becoming a major star, he takes a job as a tour guide for Duck-boat-like company in Boston. The shady North End characters who run that operation get him unwittingly involved in some high crimes, and with serendipitous luck he manages to have his own little share of the American dream come true.

2. Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched – 22 pp – A great story, chosen for the 2010 Best American Short Stories collection. Steve, I think, is the son of analysts, so he has a lot of fun tweaking the profession. He wrote another very funny story about an analyst who like to parade around naked in his office after hours. In this piece, an analyst treats a professional poker player with a perfect name – Gary Sharpe. The player comes to him and after he whines about a bad loss and his fears that he has a tell, the analyst think he’s discovered what it is. After a year’s worth of sessions in which the player railed against him, the analyst thinks he might have a chance to exact his own little revenge when he meets the player at a casino and they take each other on in a game of Texas hold ‘em.

3. Hope Wood – 15 pp – Two unemployed philosophy graduates try to earn some money by helping an old black man who paints pictures on discarded furniture. One of them desperately hopes a crib the old man won’t give him might convince his pregnant girlfriend to take him back.

4. Not Until You Say Yes– 16 pp – An older widow who works security at Logan airport has to babysit a boy who keeps trying to keep to get bumped off overbooked flights in order to cash in on the vouchers he can accumulate for the inconvenience.

5. Shotgun Wedding – 17 pp – A woman who works for an ad agency discovers she may be pregnant, and while she resists taking a doctor’s office or home test to get confirmation, she considers the implications her condition might have on her relationship with her ambitious fiancé.

6. Tamalpais – 15 pp – A younger waiter’s coming of age. While a young man in a restaurant is trying to prove himself, his first customer is a desperate older woman who eats and drinks by herself, announcing that an important man is going to come in any second and throw a lavish party for her. By the end of the night, the young man has to try to avoid the clutches of the very drunk and still very alone woman.

7. What the Bird Says – 16 pp – An absolutely marvelous story about a son who moved away from his affluent Southern home and refused to run the family business. But when his always critical father is on his deathbed the son is called home. In morphine-induced hallucinations, the father carries on conversations with a bird he sees on his shoulder, offering brutally honest assessments of each member of his family. Sitting by his side, listening to all of his father’s rambling thoughts, the son manages to find a powerful reconciliation with his father.

8. The Darkness Together – 14 pp – A Pushcart-prize winner about a mother and son forced to share a train cabin with a boorish passenger who forces them to face some unwelcome truths about the perhaps too close relationship the attractive widowed woman has forged with her handsome 18-year-old son..

9. A Jew Berserk on Christmas Eve – 16 pp – A college student spends Christmas with his rich girlfriend at her family mansion, hoping he’ll get his long-sought-after chance to have sex with her, but he witnesses some bizarre goings-on worthy of a Fellini movie.

10. Akedah – 6 pp – A heart-wrenching story about a widow who has to deal with the violent streak her son possesses after returning home from World War II. Following doctors’ orders, she takes the misguided route some took in the 1950s for dealing with mental illness.

11. Hagar’s Sons – 20 pp – A Wall Street securities specialist gets flown to an Arab kingdom for a meeting with a sheik in the summer of 2001. He’s treated lavishly but kept in the dark about the purpose of the trip until he discovers the sheik is looking for insider’s tip on how to invest in the aftermath of an attack on the United States.

12. First Date Back – 17 pp -- A soldier unprepared for re-entry to civilization who develops a crush on a stewardess on his flight back from Iraq. Her attempt to be kind to him has devastating consequences.
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13. A Dream of Sleep – 17 pp – A caretaker for a cemetery watches the world change around him. He retreats within the enclosed space, living there and caring for it, long after all the relatives of the dead who came to visit the graves have died themselves and been buried in more modern cemeteries. His only connection to another person, after years of isolation, comes when he stumbles upon a young girl who snuck into the abandoned cemetery to have sex with her boyfriend.
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  johnluiz | Aug 6, 2013 |
Well, I really loved the design and cover illustration, but I didn't love the book. I liked a few of the stories, but even those were pretty forgettable. I started getting the feeling that the title of the collection is sort of pejorative and sarcastic, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. I did like the last story quite a lot, but it couldn't overcome the overall impression I was left with. ( )
  edenic | Feb 6, 2012 |
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Almond's deft touch with both comedy and tragedy make this a memorable and well-crafted collection.
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Leslie Patterson (Oct 15, 2011)
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0984592237, Paperback)

From a "gifted storyteller" who delivers "always enjoyable, often hysterical stories" (New York Times Book Review) comes a meditation on the American Dream and its discontents. In his most ambitious collection yet, Steve Almond offers a comic and forlorn portrait of these United States: our lust for fame, our racial tensions, the toll of perpetual war, and the pursuit of romantic happiness.

In the exuberant title story, a hapless would-be actor, desperate to escape the drudgery of his existence, lands the role of a lifetime. In "Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched," reprinted in Best American Short Stories, a psychoanalyst with a secret gambling addiction squares off over the poker table against a damaged ex-patient. In "First Date Back," a young woman becomes the target of a traumatized soldier's misguided hopes for love. And "A Dream of Sleep," the collection's final story, presents a grief-stricken refugee who tends the graves of a forgotten cemetery, only to have his fragile peace shattered by an unwelcome visitor.

Each of these thirteen stories is an urgent investigation of America's soul, its particular suffering, its injustices, its possibilities for redemption. With deft sleight of hand, Almond, "a writer who knows us as well as we know ourselves" (Houston Chronicle), leavens his disappointment and outrage with a persistent hope for the men and women who inhabit his worlds. God Bless America offers us an astonishing vision of our collective fate, rendered in Almond's signature style of "precise strokes . . . with metaphors so original and spot-on that they read like epiphanies" (San Francisco Chronicle).

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:25:28 -0400)

Steve Almond offers a comic and forlorn portrait of America: our lust for fame, our racial tensions, the toll of perpetual war, and the pursuit of romantic happiness.

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