Book review of Not That You Asked, Steve Almond
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Steve Almond
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Random House
Not That You Asked: Rants, Exploits and Obsessions

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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nce upon a time – in the not-so-distant past, actually – pop culture essayists were expected to maintain a respectable distance between their subjects and themselves. If you were to read, for instance, a book or article that billed itself as a series of ruminations on the heavy metal bands of the ‘80s, you would have every right to be surprised when you opened it and discovered that it was 25 percent about the bands and 75 percent about the author and his experiences.

Then along came Chuck Klosterman, the witty/popular/divisive pop culture writer who dropped a 10-megaton literary bomb on the fourth wall. Klosterman spent wide swaths of columns and books talking about himself, despite the fact that said columns and books were at least nominally supposed to be about subjects not named Chuck Klosterman, and kicked off a new wavelet of pop criticism in the process.

The war may not be over, but at least a few battles have been won. As proof, here’s Steve Almond, who proved with his national confectioner’s tour/memoir, Candyfreak, that it’s possible to beat Klosterman at his own game – specifically, by inverting the sharp, exhausted cynicism and ever-present smirk that seems to be de rigueur in the genre. It would be needlessly pat to define Steve Almond as Chuck Klosterman with a soul, but that’s actually sort of what he is.

Candyfreak is a marvelous book, by turns informative, hilarious, and touching, and even if the transitions between looks at the American candy industry and Almond’s personal life were occasionally somewhat jarring, it was a minor flaw. He carries that humor and likeability over to (Not That You Asked), a stitched-together collection of essays about topics as disparate as the Red Sox, politics and fatherhood.

The book begins beautifully, with a powerhouse of an essay about Almond’s love affair with the books of Kurt Vonnegut; he deftly walks the line between humor, education and something like evangelism, and whether you care for Vonnegut’s work or not, you’re liable to be deeply moved by the way Almond frames the author as a fragile, persistent voice in the wilderness. The way Vonnegut makes Almond feel is the way any writer who’s ever written hopes he makes his audience feel. In communicating that so brilliantly, Almond might even stand a chance at making a few of his readers feel that way too.

The book can’t help it if the remainder follows a soft downhill grade. The rest of his subjects simply aren’t as interesting, and how could they be? Still, you’ll bust a gut or two reading about Almond’s hatred for Red Sox Nation, or his experience as a would-be reality TV star, and there are vicarious thrills to be had when Almond manages to get in a few well-timed jabs at the human flatulence that is Sean Hannity. The overall sense of bemused self-deprecation can feel stiflingly rigid at times, and toward the end of the book, Almond seems to run out of clever and starts leaning on cute. But exposing yourself to these deficiencies is a small price to pay for spending a few hundred pages with one of the funniest, most affecting authors you’ve probably never heard of.

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