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Published: Sunday, 10/21/2007

Book review: Love him, hate him - or both


Steve Almond, you've gotta love him.

The guy's funny, irreverent and he has the courage of his convictions. He's not afraid to offer up wicked funny barbed broadsides to Boston Red Sox fans (while living in Boston) or quit his adjunct professorship when his employer brings Condoleezza Rice in as a commencement speaker. He's an honest writer who knows he owes all his inspiration to a tremendous work ethic.

And did I mention he's funny? Check out this "letter" to Oprah Winfrey, imploring her to have him on her show:

I'm thinking it might be cool to do a show that's about "healing" the rift between Condoleezza and myself. She could (for instance) apologize for the lies that got us into the Iraq war, and I could apologize for referring to her as

"the president's office wife." Then we might hug. Or do some music together. Or both.

Steve Almond, you've gotta hate him.

The guy's got a monstrous ego, a mean streak and he's annoying. He can take the most mundane aspects of his life and go on and on and on about them like a boorish friend who takes every story and makes it about himself. He's one of those pushy Gen-X guys who just can't shut up. And did I mention he's mean? Here's another "letter" to Oprah:

But outrage isn't your thing, Oprah. To express such a vulgar emotion would violate the dictates of the brand. All we have to do solve the crisis of empathy in this country is buy your lousy magazine, right? The one with you on the cover every single ... month. Forget confronting evil. Just keep dreaming and hoping and snuffling with Oprah, keep gulping down the aspirational sugar pills. What a crock.

And that, in a sugar-coated candy-covered nutshell is Steve Almond. One person can pick up Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions (Not That I Asked) and find himself enraptured by his viciously funny take-down of Winfrey. Another can start reading and quickly find themselves bored by his willingness to pick, pick, pick at his own - and by extension our culture's - scabs until everything's a bloody mess.

Almond's niche in this collection of essays that have appeared in numerous magazines and online publications is that of the wiseguy observer of everything from the Iraq war to masturbation. He becomes a character in his own tales, most of which are first-person riffs on whatever's on his mind. His closest peer is Chuck Klosterman, another pop culture essayist with a sharp wit and an infatuation with mirror that reflect his own thoughts.

Both started at small newspapers, both are unflinchingly honest and don't hesitate to make themselves look stupid and both seem to have never had a thought they didn't feel like airing. Almond, the author of the nonfiction Candyfreak, and the story collection My Life in Heavy Metal, is especially open and his pieces on sex, with himself or with any number of girlfriends, are impressive if for no other reason than to the degree to which he honors the writer's code to be true to his readers by leaving nothing out.

Almond's work resonates a little more than Klosterman's though because he is a more disciplined writer who doesn't give into the temptation to riff wildly and tangentially. Each of his pieces ends with a tidy summary paragraph that is much more difficult to pull off than it appears. He ties our country's infatuation with CSI-type dead body fetishist TV shows with the unwillingness of the military and the media to show the coffins of soldiers returning to Iraq in a pointed, thoughtful way that does what any good essayist should: shine an unforgiving light on ourselves.

That he presents serious, unapologetically emotional pieces on the war in a collection of stories that include his painful description of getting his chest waxed is what makes Almond so divisive. How can you take seriously a guy who writes about his "chestfro" when he's offering a fiercely eloquent take down of the secretary of state?

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