The young and romantically dysfunctional protagonists who populate the dozen short stories in Steve Almond's new collection, My Life in Heavy Metal (Grove Press), trudge past single file like the characters in an alternate-universe Disneyland parade: a two-timing, 1980s hair-band-loving pop music critic; the PC-to-a-fault Democratic policy wonk; the self-deluded composition professor sexually sucker-punched by a blithe grad student. Almond emits an audible sigh when confronted with this litany of (mostly) likable losers. "I know this terrain," he admits. "I wish I didn't, but, sadly, I do -- people grinding through their 20s and 30s with all the danger of erotic attachment and none of the stability."
Now 35 and a creative writing teacher at Boston College, Almond began flirting with fiction in his spare time in 1994 while working as a staff reporter at the alternative newsweekly Miami New Times (owned by the company that publishes SF Weekly). "[Journalism] is the best training in the world," he contends. "You hear people's rhythms, the way they speak, their intonations -- and the way that certain stories come out the way that they didn't even mean to come out."
With the exception of the contemplative "Among the Ik," the stories in Heavy Metal radiate an almost palpable throb, often whipped by up-to-the-nanosecond lingo; one, "Geek Player, Love Slayer," virtually hyperventilates, as Almond chronicles inner-office lust and coyly toys with the narrator's identity.
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If Almond marches his protagonists through relentless relationship breakdowns, he undergirds their fates with a glimmer of hope, usually filtered through the distorting prism of memory. "I'm fascinated by the idea of the past as a receptacle of regrets," he notes. "You love somebody way more afteryou've been with them, because you just choose out those moments that suggest how beautiful they were and how kind and how sweet and devoted, and you ignore what it was really like. ... [Y]ou forget that you were restless and bored and it wasn't right."