The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories – Renee Nicholson

steve almond

“… so long as we are possessed by experience that is distinguished by its intensity and its episodic nature, we will have the short story in our literature.” John Cheever, “Why I Write Short Stories” in Newsweek, October 30, 1978.

The characters in Steve Almond’s new collection of stories can be described, on the whole, as being possessed by their experience. Cheever’s discussion of the form of a short story is important to this collection because it sums up not only why short stories continue to be relevant, but explain why these short stories are relevant.

Most of what has been written about Almond’s writing includes discussions about his humor, wit and sensuality. This is a self evident fact of Almond’s craft. But what makes a collection more interesting to read is when the reader is confronted by that intense event, and that author captures this intensity of that episode, that moment in time with all its implications and revelations. In The Evil B. B. Chow and Other Stories, Almond gives us these moments and unifies them with a single theme – vulnerability.

The Evil B. B. Chow and Other Stories also expands Almond’s range from his last short story collection, My Life In Heavy Metal, which, in my opinion, was a very strong collection. In the new book, however, Almond takes on new and more extraordinary challenges. One such challenge is the creations of a historical fiction about President Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Lincoln, to many, is an American hero, and in his own acknowledgements at the end of the collection, Almond writes, “… last but not least, Abraham Lincoln, a man of astonishing eloquence and moral courage, who died, many years ago, for the sins of this country.” In “Lincoln, Arisen” Almond does not confront the issues or stature of the President Lincoln, as he presents two men as men. The fact that they are famous, historical figures informs our reading of the story, but the focus is the stark recognition that great men are still, in fact, just men, with emotions and fears and fallibility – and the need to pee. Perhaps they are better for the fact that they can be two men floating down t river on a raft.

Completely different from historical fiction, “I Am As I Am” confronts the vulnerability of a child who accidentally hits another boy in the head with a bat during a neighborhood baseball game. The boy he hits dies from the blow. Our protagonist, Eric, is unable to express sorrow or grief for what happens because his parents, an overprotective, chain smoking, uptight mother and a prideful father, try to shield him from the event and make his life, “normal.” In doing so, they cause Eric to be scarred by his actions on a deep and personal level. We get the story, third person limited, from Eric’s perspective, feeling with him the loss of innocence that this one accidental occurrence makes is his life. But what’s truly lamentable are the actions of his parents to protect him, which ultimately make the incident worse:

“Eric wanted to speak to someone, his father or Stevie Hayes, or even his little brother. He thought about heading outside, but was suddenly frightened someone would see him, that there would be a commotion. The feeling reminded him of having the chicken pox, a kind of quarantine.”

As his parents reassure him that he is popular, handsome and smart, Eric comes to realize those things as the obligations to them. Only alone is he able to be remorseful and grieve. This isn’t just some sort of requisite baseball-themed piece, but the tale where vulnerability of this boy and the inability of his parents to give him truly what he needs.

An adult character, Flem Owens, in “Larsen’s Novel” is a foil to Eric in “I Am As I Am.” Flem watches the unraveling of his best friend over a lifelong dream of writing a novel. While the novel’s writer, Larsen, seems to be a loveable if not laughable loser, it is really Flem Owens who holds inside his fears and envy of Larsen’s ambition. Even though Flem has dismissed the project as tedious tripe, he comes to see his own judgementalness as a guise for his own lack of ambition. Flem tells his therapist:

“I mean, we all have artistic impulses, okay? I took a writing class in college. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to suddenly go around proclaiming myself some kind of novelist.”

All the time he dismisses the book to others – his therapist, his wife and himself – he avoids talking about the manuscript with Larsen himself. By the story’s end Flem recognizes that he’s jealous of Larsen, not because he had written a great novel, but simply because he had done it, he had dared to dream it was possible. By this time, however, Larsen has deflated, and like Eric’s parents in “I Am As I Am” Flem has failed his friend. Almond shows off his flair for humor in the sections where he shows the reader the pages of Larsen’s masterpiece, which are overblown and filled with clichés for a very humorous effect. This only heightens the grand gesture of writing the novel, in both Flem’s and the reader’s perspective. It’s also comic relief.

Almond gives us plenty of his tell-tale humor in “Appropriate Sex” a foray into a day in the life of an undergraduate writing instructor. The cast of characters in this piece are funny because if you’ve taken an undergraduate writing course, you’ve met these folks – in fact, you might have even been one of these students. There’s Brendan, whose realization that a classmate’s story has kinky sexual undertones puts him in a dither between being turned on and self congratulation for “getting” the intention behind a story the classmate wrote. Then there’s Emily, who strikes out at Brendan’s fit of self revelation out of post breakup angst with him. Mix in the “sexless” class discussion leader, Nicole, and Ingrid, who writes only about God. And, Mandy, a sort of sex kittenish student who is unafraid to make sexual advances towards her teacher. The mix of youth and writing and inhibition befuddles the narrator, the writing prof:

“The dress code in my own class was terrifying. Cutoffs. Halter tops. Garments that managed to fuse the sartorial aspirations of sportswear and lingerie. Spring was finally here (finally! finally!) and there was no holding the young skin back.”

The story is rife with classic undergraduate writing class type comments – “I wrote, like, a whole critique.” It is also permeated with passages about President Clinton’s indiscretions, which function as a cultural backdrop to the overtly sexual atmosphere of the classroom:

“And what’s more, it was everything we wished for, to see our big daddy Prez getting down with some chubby hayseed in the Oral Office. It was what we deserved. Our popular culture had prepared us exquisitely for the whole shebang. Practically everywhere you turned, strangers were preparing to have sex, or talking about sex, advising us on how to lick a woman’s private parts.”

However, within the erotically charged, youth centeredness of the situation and witty observations of the narrator, this story gets to that fundamental sense of vulnerability. The students are looking for a sense of validation; the narrator is losing his wife and his grip on his current work situation. In the end, the feeling evoked is that what doesn’t make you laugh makes you cry. But even if you laugh, if you enjoy one moment, the intensity of that single passage of time somehow makes the rest bearable.

Perhaps the story that best shows vulnerability is the title story, “The Evil B.B. Chow.” In this story we are presented with a woman who, despite her professional accomplishments, is a wreck romantically:

“I also tell him that I’m divorced. I’ve learned not to hold that in reserve, because it generally freaks the single guys out. They either relegate me to this suspect category of fallen woman (Hester Prynne, J.Lo) or they assume I was somehow abused, and now it’s incumbent upon them to rescue me. I’m not sure which is worse.”

Almond shows he can capably write a female narrator, with themes that echo “Geek Player, Love Slayer” from My Life in Heavy Metal. Above showing that he can capture an aspect of contemporary feminine vulnerability, what makes “The Evil B.B. Chow” a particularly powerful narrative is that B.B. himself uses vulnerability as a romantic asset. By wooing a woman to bed by being completely open and vulnerable, he actually utilizes what would otherwise be considered weaknesses as his ally in attracting and bedding down with women that, we understand, he would not be with otherwise. We come to an eventually understanding that he is nothing better than a rakish cad who plays the sensitivity card with stunning acumen. For us, and the narrator, he crystallizes these internal fears of successful career women, “There is so much time in this life for grief. So many men lying in wait.” The myth that a woman can, or must have it all is debunked. As well, if you get duped by the B.B. Chow’s of the world, who else is left that won’t dupe you?

The pieces that comprise The Evil B. B. Chow and Other Stories show us a moment in the lives of people where they are possessed by the intensity of what they understand about themselves. Whether they find themselves pathetic, or lonely, or scared they are essentially human. And while none of these stories is the stuff novels are made of, it’s better that they are not. They are single complete narratives about the frailties of contemporary people who inhabit a strange and confusing culture. If Almond never writes a novel, if he continues to write strong short fiction which gives us that sense that Cheever described in his Newsweek essay, we might all be better for it. Because at the end of the day, all of us wrestle with that vulnerability which morphs and changes in form. We live life in connected episodes, searching for truth.

“Everyone’s a saint when it comes to the human spirit.” Almond writes. “The other stuff just grows over us, like weeds.”

first published in the-beat http://www.the-beat.co.uk

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