We used to be intimate

Contrary to popular belief, some people really do read Playboy for the articles. In fact, men’s magazines such as Playboy and Esquire are among the last safe harbors for what was once considered America’s greatest contribution to the literary canon, the short story. With publishing outlets for the short story otherwise narrowed to either supposedly high-brow magazines like Harper’s and The New Yorker or to hard-to-get quarterly literary magazines published by small college presses, men’s magazines have, over the past several decades, provided a channel for those who would follow in the footsteps of Edgar Allen Poe, alleged inventor of the short story, and Ernest Hemingway, who made pursuit of the perfect short story a manly sport.

Steve Almond is merely the latest author to test these waters. Two of the selections in his first collection of short stories, My Life In Heavy Metal, recently released by Grove Press, first appeared in Playboy, the other 10 have been culled from the so-called little magazines. While sex per se isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for publication in the literary periodicals Almond’s work has appeared in, sex—and the human emotions and actions it evokes, the relationships it ensues and consumes—is the unifying theme in this volume.

“My Life In Heavy Metal,” one of the two pieces that first appeared in Playboy, leads off the book, and quickly establishes how far Almond is willing to go: one of the male protagonist’s two female antagonists is capable of ejaculation, i.e. a clear fluid jets out of her vagina when she orgasms. Such incidents have been reported before, in Penthouse Forum, for instance, with more erotic results.

But eroticism does not seem to be Almond’s aim here. Instead, he is intent on laying out the existential criteria by which his usually male, first person protagonists make their choices; in the case of “My Life In Heavy Metal,” the choice between his yuppie college girlfriend’s incurable neo-elitism and the female ejaculator’s singular ability. This is where Almond finds conflicts: in extremes—between a woman who has been intellectually shaped by popular culture and a woman shaped by a physical anomaly, characteristics drawn in black and white without a tuning knob.

A similarly distorted duality is presented in “Geek Player, Love Slayer,” another story Almond, a former journalist, locates in the modern newspaper office, where the protagonist, a seasoned female reporter whose biological clock is ticking, has developed a crush on the paper’s computer tech, or as she calls him, “Computer Boy.” Like many of the tales here, this is more a commentary on a cultural phenomenon—in this case, the evolution in the workplace of computer techs from geeks to players—than it is an actual story. As such, it is an interesting artifact, but one wonders, with the recent cancellation of Ally McBeal, how novel, or relevant, the idea is.

This then, the territory demarcated by the physical and the intellectual, is the realm in which Almond operates, with mixed results. Structurally, his stories seem sound, if you ignore the fact that existentialism and dualism are antipodes, i.e., in an existential universe, the physical and the intellectual, sex and intimacy, are one and the same thing, a monism. If you can’t ignore that, Almond’s characters seem overdrawn, incapable of reacting outside the strict parameters their creator has established for them. Thus, they are incapable of feeling joy—or life.

Perhaps that explains why most of the stories in My Life In Heavy Metal are more like essays or tone poems on a certain kind of pain, the pain of love lost and the sudden realization of an innocence that never existed, than they are justifications for life on earth, with all its pros and cons. His characters know what wrong is, but they have yet to experience right. One walks away from My Life In Heavy Metal thinking Steve Almond is not a happy man.