Toward the end of 2015 came one of my favorite books of the year, a short story collection called Kinda Sorta American Dream, written by Steve Karas. Of the fourteen stories, ranging in length from 2 pages to 50 pages, there wasn’t a story in the collection that I wasn’t grabbed by, or that had a character Karas failed to bring to life.
The stories have a wide variety of setting and conflict and yet somehow they work perfectly together to form a consistent theme implied by the title that there is something just out of reach in our current lives, something short of the classical American Dream, yet also short of a complete American Nightmare. These are some of the people in Karas’ America: A 27-year old still living with his mother and on the brink of being left behind by his parents’ new lives. A middle school girl in love with her Syrian pen pal. A middle-aged man turned grandfather who is worried about his descendants’ futures. An unemployed man forced into enrolling in a Shopping-Mall-Santa school. A middle-aged man discovering the world of Facebook.
The characters often face similar endings that are somewhat open. Their only change might be the realization that their situation hasn’t or won’t improve. That this is the best it gets. Kinda Sorta. Karas still manages, however, to bring this out with some form of optimism. Maybe that’s my optimism coming through, but there seemed to be a subtext message that the American Dream might not come true, but we’re all going to be okay. Even if some things are more screwed up than ever, even if our lives are slightly defective, we’re going to be fine…ish. Sorta.
In a great mixture of pace, some of these stories do have sweet and positive endings for the characters. Some of their dreams do come true. Sometimes, intimacy is possible. Sorta. Intimacy is often out of reach of these characters, but it also can be the grace they find in the end. The story, “Hold On,” goes to the future to explore this. In the 2040s, our main character works in a human touch center, which is the only place people can go to feel actual human contact. It’s a world normally lacking intimacy, but somehow the main character finds it in an unexpected source. The character in “To Abdo, With Love” has a moment of reflection that is simultaneously connected and disconnected:
I can tell she’s thinking, You’re just a kid, you don’t know how the world works. She’s not saying it, but I can feel it. One day you’ll be all grown up, you’ll understand.(p. 19)
This girl is distant from her teacher and yet somehow has connected insight and receives an important message.
Karas gets this across with an astonishingly diverse range of voice and character. My favorite moments of his stories were the introductions of his first-person narratives and finding out who we were now. Given the strength he had for capturing unique voices, I was a little surprised third-person stories outnumbered first-person narratives eight to six. The writer went from a 27-year-old man-kid, to a middle-school girl, to a middle-aged grandfather, to the mother of a dead Marine so seamlessly and effectively it showed the power of literary empathy. None of the characters felt like exercise; these were full instantiations of voice. The only one that I sensed a slight break in the dream was in “Blue,” where the main character was a black police officer named Jaylen. Even this wasn’t necessarily an issue of character. At times, it felt like “Blue’s” overall political message was larger than the story. I’m not sure even that criticism is fair, but it’s certainly a question I didn’t have on the other sociopolitical stories of the collection.
Most of the stories are around thirteen pages, but “It Takes a Village” comes in at fifty pages. It’s almost novella length but still maintains effective short story scope. It’s a very realistic story of a school social worker facing difficult teens, difficult bureaucracy with threats of layoff, disengaged colleagues, and administrative roadblocks to his desire to make a difference. This story demonstrated a style that is in control of pace and the ability to show a turn without forcing it. The following two sentences are the end of one long paragraph and the beginning of another:
He wondered if he’d ever need to sleep again. By mid-morning the next day, Andrew needed a nap.(p. 67)
This type of turn is also effective in the opening story, “Ain’t Like the Movies,” where the main character tells us about suppressing his desire to tell his dad to go fuck himself only to do exactly that three pages later.
Karas certainly puts his characters in a tree. He throws a lot of rocks at them. But somehow he does it with kindness. It seems his characters understand. They know he has to throw at them, and they know it will hurt. There is acceptance from the first few sentences:
I’m sitting at the kitchen table over a bowl of soggy oats, hives crawling up my neck, eyes watery and itchy. It’s the cats; I’m deathly allergic. My mom brought home three last night.(p. 1)
to the last few:
Hank blew smoke rings at the sky, out to space. He blew them at the giant black holes out there waiting to swallow Planet Earth, at the asteroids preparing to slice through Earth’s atmosphere. He blew smoke rings, small ones then bigger ones, at the great unknown inevitably on its way.(p. 226)
This collection is heavy and light like Led Zeppelin. Hard and soft like Nirvana. Here, we aren’t okay, yet that’s okay. This collection is not kinda or sorta a work of art, it is definitively one.
(Originally published at the Spark on 1/14/2016)