Kinda Sorta American Dream: Collected Stories
By Steve Karas
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
A couple weeks ago Chris* reviewed Kinda Sorta American Dream: Collected Stories by Steve Karas. A hiccup in the review assignments turned into a blessing. Like Chris I have lots of praise for Karas’s collection of short stories, but I’ll be coming at this from a different perspective. My preferences differ slightly.
“To Abdo, with Love” is offered up early in the collection. It involves a military brat with a pen pal in Syria. While I enjoyed its incisive take on our Middle Eastern forever wars and the slow-motion catastrophe of modern Syria, it did it with a small, individual story. The tweenage girl narrator’s combination of naivete and outrage pretty much encapsulates how our nation attempts to solve the world’s problems. Luckily not everything in this collection is ripped-from-the-headlines sob stories.
The titular story centers around an unemployed man’s journey through the Mall Santa training program. The marital friction caused by unemployment collided with the absurdity of the narrator working as a Mall Santa. I enjoyed its dark humor and its critique of American culture’s relentless and oppressive optimism. Work and its absurdities were the focus of “Blue.” A shorter piece, it charts the impossibilities of everyday life as an African-American big city cop. All the cop wants to do is get home safe and alive, but he meets resistance from African-American protesters and a drunk redneck at a gas station. The diamond-hard concision creates a vicious mental and moral pressure on the cop. He just wants to get through the day, he doesn’t want to become an icon or political fodder for either side.
“It Takes A Village” is a novella-length exploration of modern public education. It follows the life of a special education teacher from Chicago who relocates with his wife to tropical Florida. They are recovering from a recent miscarriage and are working to have a child again. The special ed teacher, like the other narrators in these stories, combines a naivete with outrage. Thrown mid-stream into a toxic hellbroth of budget cuts, faculty in-fighting, and dealing with a problem case, he finds solace in quoting Paul Coelho. It didn’t seem overstuffed to me, so much as begging for expansion. I would really like to see a short novel by Karas.
“Toys in Closets,” the short story based on a YouTube vlogger seemed like an outlier, but I enjoyed its weirdness. Even hyper-famous New Media darlings have the same dating woes as everyone else. Well, not quite. The quaint romance underlying the narrative gave it a wonderful sweetness. Effervescent where other stories radiated Karas’s acerbic wit.
Karas’s work represents a fascinating new voice in American fiction. His work is topical without being preachy or obvious. The collision of absurdity with hard-scrabble everyday realism reminds me of Nathanael West. Like West, Karas is a chronicler of an America poised between comedy and apocalypse. These days it’s hard to tell them apart.
Out of 10/9.5
*Chris was another book reviewer at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP).