Clever can get you only so far. Monkeys are clever; so are certain birds.
They can use tools and get at prey that might otherwise go uneaten.
But they don't use tools to record their thoughts in written language.
Only humans are afflicted with this disease, and even so, many of
them are merely clever when it comes to what they write about and
how they write about it. Steve Almond is certainly clever, but he's
more than a tool-using mammal. '(Not That You Asked)' is his collection
of essays and it goes well beyond clever to hilariously funny, occasionally
profound and often profane. Almond writes about a variety of stuff
in a variety of styles, with bits that range from pure, virulent
satire to personal literary criticism. He'll make you think, make
you laugh and ruthlessly make fun of himself. As you read, you'll
enjoy an engaging demonstration of the cleverest tool ever devised
by cave-dwelling hairless apes.
Almond jumps out of the gate with a bracing burst of bitter bile, 'Dear
Oprah'. Now, sure, Oprah Winfrey is an easy target, but Almond puts himself
in the crosshairs as well. You may not laugh with Oprah, but you do get
to laugh at Almond, which is as close to fair and balanced as you can
expect. The mood shifts with 'Every thing Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt',
an extended essay on the enduring power of Kurt Vonnegut, filtered through
Almond's attempts to interview The Great Man. Almond is still funny and
does a fine job portraying the mishaps of a literary interviewer trying
to score a chat with an American literary icon. But we get a good deal
more than self-lampooning antics. Almond engagingly reminds readers why
Vonnegut was both important and entertaining by effectively exploring
his own relationship to the work while pursing a relationship with the
writer. The latter may never some to pass, but the former is funny, touching,
and intellectually stimulating. In other words, a more-than-clever use
of the language as a tool.
Having established a range from the ridiculous to the sublime, Almond's
essays then strut their stuff. He writes about sex, in styles ranging
from the cringe-worthy 'Shame on Me', in which his mother finds an item
no mother should encounter, to the breezy and nearly authoritative 'How
to Write Sex Scenes: the 12-Step Program'. He writes about sports and
even explains to this heathen why anyone would pay attention to sports.
A man who can write about sports and not make my eyes glaze over, in
fact who can actually entertain me, is a man who has taken up his tools
with an intelligence that suggests he will not he digging grubs from
within tree branches his entire life.
Almond's brief encounter with fame heretofore was the release of his
book 'Candyfreak', and his even briefer encounter with Reality TV in
the form of VH1's show Obsessions makes for wonderful reading. It may
hold no surprises with regards to the crass nature of these shows, but
clever tool use ensures that readers are actually laughing at Almond
as often as with him. Good call. And again, while Almond's encounter
with a blogger in 'Blog Love' will hold few surprises so far as content,
execution is ever a strong point to be admired. Even his easy-target
potshots at the Hateocracy of right-wing talk-TV and radio demonstrate
a level of artistry that suggests symbolism rather than mere tool-use.
If you agree with his politics, you laugh with him; if not, you laugh
at him. Win-win. And 'Where'd You Hide the Body?' is a powerful observation
of the conjunction of culture and conflict – a new way of looking
at the war being fought in Iraq. The book concludes with writing about
Me, Me, Me – or rather, Him, Him, Him. He does a particularly good
job encoding the insane fears of a new father, painting a perfect picture
of the world turned into a giant Rube-Goldberg device aimed to turn the
first-time father into a Killer of His Own Child. Better to laugh at
someone else's fears than experience your own.
'(Not That You Asked)' is an excellent tool for readers seeking entertainment
leavened with elegance and education or elegance and education leavened
with entertainment. Choose the direction you wish to travel and turn
the tool either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Unscrew stuff and then
put it all back together again while cramming in a few laughs alongside
some trenchant thoughts and observations. You'll be glad you asked.