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True grit

(Not That You Asked) Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions; Steve Almond; Random House: 290 pp., $21.95

September 30, 2007|Joy Nicholson | Joy Nicholson is the author of the novels "The Tribes of Palos Verdes" and "The Road to Esmeralda."

The rare charm of author Steve Almond is his compulsion to tell the truth.

His newest book, "(Not That You Asked)," is a rich, fearless, cutting collection of essays on a variety of topics including inter-author jealousy, the odd sensation of touching fake breasts and good old standbys about Hollywood, hypocritical politicians and the confusion of new fatherhood. True, Almond's rants are not directed toward particularly innovative targets. They are not told in an innovative form. Unlike his hero, Kurt Vonnegut, who also had a penchant for angry/funny truth-telling -- albeit with fantastical whimsy -- Almond almost exclusively navel-gazes.

From a lesser talent, this self-obsession might be grating, but this book works splendidly. Almond is fresh and fierce, writing at a time when we want straight-up confession. We don't want monsters and aliens to symbolize human folly.

We pretty much know how upside down the world has gotten.

Take sex.

Almond often does.

When Almond reflects back at us a truth like, "Contrary to popular belief, people think during sex. And just what do people think about? Laundry. Bioterrorism. Old lovers. . . . " and then tells us, "The thoughts that accompany the act are more significant than the gymnastics," his point is inescapably true and funny. "If you ever saw a videotape of yourself in action, you'd agree. What an absurd arrangement."

"(Not That You Asked)" doesn't make the world weirder or more wondrous than it actually is. Republican politicians try to bribe Almond, who's being honored as a small businessman (the business isn't all that clear). They'll give him a "ceremonial gavel" if he'll just contribute cash. They then up the ante, proclaiming his name can be printed in an advertisement -- if he'd just give $500.

Can a writer resist the urge to see his name in print -- even if it's a sham?

In another essay, Almond is targeted for immortal fame as a reality TV star. To gain this fame, Almond, a self-professed candy addict (see his book "Candyfreak"), must prove he's "obsessed." He must fondle, stalk and molest pieces of candy. The physical demonstration is necessary because only then will the public get that he's a candy addict.

Almond worries that rolling around in a bed full of candy to impress a TV crew crosses his moral line (his "personal covenant") but then contemplates doing it anyway, and then does it in a fashion -- that is, he sells out but then doesn't even get bought. No one cares. His dilemma strikes a nerve. Which artist hasn't feared selling out and not making it anyway?

There's no lack here of craft in straight-shooting.

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