If you know the name Steve Almond, this is most likely because of the 2004 book Candyfreak, his self-explanatory memoir about a love for sweets. In addition to touring many of the candy factories of the United States, Almond also dipped into his dysfunctional upbringing and took a few small nibbles out of the Bush administration.
Politics and family resurface in (Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions, his first collection of essays. And, as you could surmise from the subtitle, Steve gets freaky over a slew of new topics. What, did you think Almond’s compulsions ended at his sweet tooth? No, he is also bonkers for baseball, preoccupied with pop culture, hung up on horniness, randy for rock ‘n’ roll, love-struck by literature, and hopelessly devoted to that seemingly hopeless cause: humanity.
In other words, Steve Almond is a typical American guy (well, perhaps aside from caring about books and the fate of the human race, anyway). This accessibility imbues his “exploits”—many of which involve hilariously humiliating dating experiences—with a familiarity that’s easy to latch onto. We’ve all been that hapless dude, or the poor females who’ve had to put up with us. Those qualities that make Almond atypical in his American guyness are also well-suited towards winning our hearts: I think it’s safe to assume that most readers of essay collections written by rabid liberals also care about books, and probably humans, as well. All of this is to say that I was predisposed to liking (Not That You Asked), and you probably will be, too.
These essays constitute something of a memoir, arranged in thematic chunks. Steve shows us why his coming of age was a particularly grueling experience (again: humiliation, girls); he reminisces about the joys of being a heavy metal music journalist (a new twist: drugs, girls); and he shares the perils of his first shaky hours of fatherhood (ineptitude, girls—and one of them a mere newborn!). These shorter works comprise the bulk of the book and best display the author’s true and winning voice: These tales are told with raw honesty, self-effacing humor, and Almond’s tender love for people’s flaws.
One flaw he’s not so fond of is lying. Specifically, he’s peeved when those lies are coming from the mouth of Condoleezza Rice, whom Almond foolishly believes has some sort of moral (and, get this—legal) obligation to not confabulate habitually and serially on matters of national security, particularly when these prevarications lead to the murder of thousands of US troops and Iraqi civilians. So, when Condi was invited to speak at Boston College’s commencement ceremony, adjunct prof Steve Almond put his money where his mouth was and quit. His open letter of resignation resulted in lots of hilarious hate mail, as well as a victorious appearance on Hannity & Colmes. His insightful and funny documenting of this series of events is a sweet spot in (Not That You Asked).
Frustratingly, the bulk of the best writing comes in the book’s latter half, and its worst piece is right up front. Almond’s opener is a mercilessly sarcastic and backhanded chiding of Oprah Winfrey, conveyed in a series of fake fan letters reeking with insincerity. Granted, the piece manages a few funny moments, but was it really necessary to go after Steadman? Actually, I’m not really sure it was necessary to go after Oprah at all. I’m not saying she’s beyond reproach, but does she truly deserve as much time in the hot seat as Condoleezza Rice? Fortunately, I’d read enough of Almond’s prior work to see this essay as an aberration of tone. Its placement right up front seems a poor editorial choice and a disservice to what follows.
(Not That You Asked) hits a couple more speed bumps before shifting into high gear. Immediately after the Oprah-bashing piece comes Almond’s triptych essay on his early hero, Kurt Vonnegut. At 50 pages, it tends toward rambling and too often feels a bit flat. Perhaps the challenges of library research methods could be rendered interesting or funny, but they aren’t here. Its opening section, however—which takes place at an author panel called the Connecticut Forum—is a beautiful tribute to Vonnegut and a smart critique of what matters in writing. Following the Vonnegut piece is a section of quickie bits on (you guessed it) girls and humiliation. These are fun, raunchy, and somehow very sweet: pure Almond.
The book’s pace then slows again with a 37-page essay about Steve’s ups and downs as a baseball fan. In short, he loves the Oakland A’s and hates the Boston Red Sox. That he eventually settles in the Boston area is problematic. Luckily for us, whenever the author’s life becomes problematic, it also gets very funny. That’s the good news on that essay. The bad news is a middle section that drags; probably because being an A’s fan can often be a drag. I sympathize, but I don’t want the miserable details.
Even with an ill-advised opener and a pair of lengthy hit-and-miss essays, (Not That You Asked) bursts with the powerfully likeable spirit of Steve Almond. He’s a very funny writer, and the biggest laughs are almost always at his own expense. He puts himself at risk over and over again, because he understands that the path to human connection is a tightrope walk. Now, I’m not saying that this book gets an A for effort and nothing more. The essays that comprise its latter half are uniformly excellent. The pacing of each is right on the mark, as is Almond’s mixture of humor, cultural critique, and lust for life (and girls). This collection probably could have used a stronger editorial hand. Trimming just a little dead weight and putting the author’s stronger pieces in the front of the book would’ve resulted in a sure hit, without the need for caveats.
Even with the excess fat, though, Steve Almond emerges as a strong voice in a generally enfeebled media landscape. Like The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart, Almond says smart things in a funny way. A good writer across styles and topics, he is also something of an everyman’s David Foster Wallace (less quantum physics; more sex). He won’t melt your mind, but he will likely challenge your thinking. Any time we can be entertained, enlightened, and inspired by a book is a good thing. Steve Almond’s essays accomplish these feats ... (Not That You Asked).