My Life in Heavy Metal
In the title story of Steve Almond's debut collection of short fiction, My Life in Heavy Metal, the narrator attends a Metallica concert, where the bassist introduces himself by farting into his microphone. It was, Almond writes, "the heavy metal equivalent of a bon mot." It is also an apt epigraph for this volume, which begins with a story that manages to be simultaneously weird, offensive, and banal. Not unlike some heavy metal.
The story goes like this: David, a lethargic guy who covers hard rock for a newspaper in El Paso, befriends a lifeguard named Claudia. He fantasizes about having sex with Claudia. Underwater. Enter David's college girlfriend, Jo, a clingy but beautiful woman who calls weekly, then decides to move to Texas on a whim. The immediate effect of Jo's arrival is (of course) to force David into the arms of Claudia who, it turns out, has a spectacular sexual trick. The first time they make love, Claudia ejaculates, spouting enough erotic fluid to drench David and create a puddle on the bed spanning two feet.
Never mind Almond's woefully inaccurate rendering of the female anatomy and its capabilities--call it literary license. What is particularly disappointing is that, unlike Claudia's geyser, the rest of the story goes nowhere but in the direction we expect. David lies to Jo, continues to sleep with Claudia, and justifies his behavior by insisting he doesn't want to hurt either one. Jo becomes even more irritating as she proves she cannot handle her liquor or her man.
Worst, Almond wraps up this story, as he does many others, with a preachy little summary of the preceding tale that leaves the reader with Something to Think About. "I was doing something even noble in the eyes of youth," David says. "Radical, kickass, seeking love on all fronts, transporting myself beyond the reach of loneliness and failure, into the blessed province of poontang." In a word: Yuck.
The regrettable thing about this introduction is that after the initial flatus that is "My Life in Heavy Metal," the author proceeds with a first book that by the end becomes downright entertaining, and he treats certain characters far more tenderly than the title story might suggest. In "Among the Ik," Rodgers, a grief-stricken widower and anthropology professor, tells the story of how he once had to identify the body of a dead student. Almond deftly weaves in the professor's lecture on the Ik--an African tribe, Rodgers claims, with so little sense of community that they turn away dying members. At the same time, Rodgers wrestles (in occasionally maudlin prose) with the fact that life goes on among the people still around him.
In "Valentino," two boys from a small Iowa town spend the summer between high school and college debating the "beauty gradient"--the persistent theory that people choose mates based on levels of attractiveness: like seeking like. What makes this tired theme interesting is the narrator, Tommy, a smart, sensitive kid with an insane mother who is best known for lighting small fires on her neighbors' lawns. Braided story lines have Tommy longing for his childhood playmate, a plain girl trying to climb the gradient scale in her choice of boyfriend; and Holden carrying on an affair with Tommy's poor, damaged mother.
Almond's talent for the unusual shines most brilliantly in "The Pass," a disjunctive piece in which half a dozen couples mingle, drink, and dance, awaiting that breathless will-she/won't-he moment of the sexual advance:
This is what the whole business is about: night. Without night, its hungering canvas, its needy musk and daring sediments, without all this, the amorous among us would fold our tents and, like Longfellow's Arabs, as silently steal away.
In this story alone, Almond's tendency to philosophize works well, as the author strikes a fair balance between sappy poetry and bold narrative prose.