Steve Almond creates realistic characters, young and old, dealing with their own demons, flaws, and the pressures of American life. I laughed at times and nearly cried at others. Almond's wit and gift for storytelling made this collection one of the most enjoyable I've read.
My favorite story, mostly because I love to play, read about, and write about poker, was "Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched." Forgetting all of the clever idiosyncrasies on display in each of the two main characters, a psychoanalyst irresistibly drawn to the poker tables to combat his secretly depressive personality and his swashbuckling professional poker playing patient, Almond's portrayal of the poker action itself in the climactic final scene propelled this story into a special place within my personal poker-related canon.
Writing is said to be a decision making process, always considering the next word, and when writing about the progression of a fictional poker hand, that decision making process is compounded by many potential choices regarding cards, odds, player psychology, etc., and Almond's description, what he chose to include and what he left up to the reader, captivated and enthralled. I admire his focus on the players' psyche and conversation, adequate but not overwhelming attention given to the cards themselves, and the overall flow of the game's action. As the Dr. and patient square off at the table during the final sequence, Almond begins from the Dr.'s perspective and I never saw the end coming, kicking myself in retrospect for not being a more astute prognosticator. In my defense, I was gobbling up the words so quickly, so eager to learn the result of the game and story, that I didn't try very hard to predict any outcome other than the one that seemed to be on its way. Almond bluffed me and I loved every minute.
The only story I didn't love was "First Date Back," not because of the utter sadness it invokes, but because I couldn't quite believe that the date itself would've happened the way it does.
I laughed out loud at the ridiculousness played out by the characters in "A Jew Berserk On Christmas Eve."
"A Dream Of Sleep," a chilling, sad tale, forced me, regardless of my strong belief of the possibilities alive today in small business capitalism, to think about capitalism's propensity for coldness, its inconsiderate nature, the ways in which it can destroy lives.
I'll be on the lookout for articles published by Steve Almond around the web (I read one this week on The Rumpus), and new fiction from him as well.