Friday I picked up Steve Almond’s latest short story collection, entitled The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories, and burned through it over the weekend. In the main, I would say it is at least as compelling as his first collection, My Life in Heavy Metal, with the same balance of really powerful stories and those that you end up feeling are sort of filler. This is simply the peril of working as an author who walks a very thin line between pure prosaic retelling of easily relatable goings-on and the perfectly-timed emotional switch that provides the strange and surprising, breathtaking insight that pulls the whole experience of reading his stories together. Each episode from the lives related (usually centered around relationships, loss, or love and the coming-to-grips associated with each) is made unique, always reiterating the message that, though, yes, we can all recognize love, heartbreak, loneliness, camaraderie, nostalgia, these states only come to be themselves through very personal and unrepeatable circumstances. Just as musicians are only musicians as a group by accident, huddled together by the independent hands of critics and not by the players themselves, who each have their own personal way of visualizing their music, using their emotions, their own personal goals to arrive at through their art, so lovers and friends are, ultimately, each unique in how they arrive at that definition. In one particular story, Lincoln, Arisen, we see Abraham Lincoln as a montage of his life and the world of his dreams through conversations between he and Frederick Douglass the abolitionist that may or may not be happening.
“There once was a man who found no happiness in his life. He was sad every moment of the day. His duties were many and without mercy. Senators ran to him in anger. Common men blackened their hearts on his behalf. A nation of mothers cursed his name. he hoped to make himself content through an adherence to God’s will, but when he examined his beliefs found he held none. His wife went insane, Douglass. His children died like flies. his one love perished.” Lincoln’s voice deepens and curls, assumes the timbre of a dream. “He behaved nobly, but for reasons he could not fathom. His faults were but the shadows his virtues cast. He saw himself grimly advancing on history, but came to understand it was the other way around. He grew bored of his own stories and savored none of his achievements. His single respite was sleep. And then that left him too. Hold me, Douglass. All the strange checkered past seems to crowd now upon my mind.”
I suppose I don’t have anything to say about this passage, save that I was moved brutally by the idea that he behaved nobly, but for reasons he could not fathom. In reality, as is recognized by the author in his acknowledgments, the character of Lincoln only feels this way because he feels unrewarded by his path and disappointed. He is not ignorant of his motives. Almond writes in his acknowledgements of Lincoln:
“Let us, in this age of unremitting grievance, choose as he did: to love, to sacrifice, to forgive.”
Good God, the responsibility lies with each of us.