God Bless America is Steve Almond's first story collection in six years, but he probably needed all that time to inject each of these 13 tales with enough eccentricity and weirdness to transform their surface reality into something resembling the arbitrary and surreal events of a dream. The titles often suggest the peculiarity of these offbeat narratives. "Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched," for example, included in the 2010 edition of The Best American Short Stories, involves a psychoanalyst with a secret gambling addiction who faces off across the poker table with a former patient with rage issues. The story even includes images of the cards the characters are dealt, to help the reader follow the progress of the game. "A Jew Berserk on Christmas Eve" recounts the suffering of a 20-year-old economics major whose girlfriend has promised sex on the night before Christmas. In "A Dream of Sleep," the caretaker of a cemetery, who lives in a tiny cryptlike structure, receives more disturbing visitors in one night than Ebenezer Scrooge.
In her blurb for Almond's collection, Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, a novel about alligator wrestlers who live in the Everglades, tries to endow the stories with some sort of significant theme. "These wonderful, wickedly hilarious stories have forgiveness at their core," she says. Perhaps, but Almond seems more intent on unleashing his own brand of narrative nihilism into the cultural consciousness. In a video interview created to promote his book, he claims God Bless America has been enthusiastically endorsed by none other than Glenn Beck — an absurd claim backed up with a brief, out-of-context clip of Beck on Fox TV exclaiming, "God bless America!" Almond's chief goal seems to be absurd juxtaposition of the type that evokes not just laughter but the type of startled surprise that causes readers to give up trying to guess what might happen next. The authors who lavish praise on God Bless America attempt to provide rational reasons for their enthusiasm, but rationality plays such a small role in Almond's stories that commending their "beautiful terrible honest," as Junot Diaz does, or Almond's "inexhaustible imagination, compassion, and elan," to quote Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (Ms. Hempel Chronicles), sounds kind of silly. Above all else, Almond seems to be trying to mess with the reader's mind, providing a form of pleasure as eccentric as his stories themselves.
Perhaps no food could provide a logical accompaniment to a discussion of Almond's writing, so let's just pay homage to his name with a delicious almond pound cake accompanied by something surprising — out-of-season berries, perhaps, or some oddly flavored yogurt.
If you would rather not bake, just serve some roasted almonds coated with something surprising, such as wasabi or cinnamon. Or make your own roasted almonds with a complex savory coating, according to a recipe found at qsproutedkitchen.com/?p=1211.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an e-mail to email@example.com. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.