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I can count on one hand the number of writers who possess the smarts, sense of humor, and guts to confront the giant sensationalist clusterfuck that passes for mainstream news these days. Of these, Steve Almond is the only one I can think of who wrote an undergraduate thesis about Kurt Vonnegut and served as the object of a Sean Hannity hissy fit on Fox News. Though Steve Almond isn't quite a household name, he's widely admired and envied in the blogosphere, where his populist appeal (his first collection of essays, [End Page 178] Candyfreak, chronicling his lifelong candy addiction, was an instant hit) and rabble-rousing make him a celebrity of the online literary establishment.
Almond's an in-your-face kind of writer, a literary version of the guy at the bar with whom you strike up a conversation, only to find yourself deep in a debate about those three no-no's: politics, religion, and sex. His new collection, (Not That You Asked), capitalizes and reflects on the notoriety he has gained in the three years since Candyfreak put him on the map. Though this new book covers topics as personal as Almond's adolescent sexual humiliation, his misbegotten decision to wax his chest hair, and ten ways he thought he accidentally killed his daughter during the first three days of her life, the great achievement of (Not That You Asked) is its (a) series of fascinating analyses of the American psyche and its attendant psychosis, manifesting variously as warmongering and collective self-delusion and (b) cojones (or, in less gendered terms, chutzpah).
In 2005, Almond quite publicly resigned (in an open letter to the Boston Globe) from his position as adjunct faculty at Boston College to protest the university's invitation to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to speak at commencement. The news media went wild for the story, landing Almond a guest spot on the Hannity & Colmes show on Fox News. During his appearance, Almond calmly refused no fewer than four times in about 26 seconds to answer Hannity's question about whether he voted for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. In "Demagogue Days or, How the Right-Wing Hateocracy Chewed Me up and Spat Me Out," Almond gives a play-by-play account of how he and Hannity came to square off on a split screen in front of millions of viewers. I recommend first reading Almond's description of how he tried to prepare himself to respond "when Hannity accused me of being a satanic pornographer" and then googling the Fox News segment to watch Almond keep his cool and actually get to utter the words "I believe that public officials shouldn't lie, and Condoleezza Rice has lied repeatedly," while Hannity throws a giant temper tantrum.
There are plenty of vicarious thrills and lots of yuks in Almond's accounts of his brushes with everyone from Sean Hannity to P. Diddy's personal trainer, but there's also plenty of substance beneath the tasty cheese topping of his anecdotes."How Reality TV Ate My Life" hilariously recounts the taping of a segment of "Totally Obsessed" for VH1 after the publication of Candyfreak when the producers wanted him to roll around on his bed in a pile of candy. Almond mines this moment not just for its comic potential, but also as a way to interrogate his own motives and, beyond that, the strange, sad illusion of Reality TV. No matter how much we'd [End Page 179] like to trick ourselves into believing otherwise, this genre is really "about the careful construction of two central narratives: false actualization and authentic shame. The nubile bachelorette on the brink of true love with one of several men she has known for seven hours. The brazen cad who manipulates his beloved on cue."
If there's one thing Almond raises to the level of art of in (Not That You Asked), it's bullshit-detecting, and if Almond's detector is any measure, there's...