#LitBeat: Punched in the Throat by Steve Almond
“You’re allowed to laugh,” said Steve Almond to an initially taciturn crowd Tuesday night at Bookpeople in Moscow, Idaho, as he read from “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched”,a story from his new collection, God Bless America. He didn’t have to tell us twice.
Only a minute or two later, he described the main character fantasizing about popping his son in the eye, just once. The crowd roared with laughter, and Almond teased us again: “I’m kind of heartened that you find child abuse so amusing. I find it’s one of the richest areas of comedic exploration.”
The reading was sponsored by the University of Idaho creative writing MFA program, and it was packed with students, professors and locals. There was a fun-house feel to the evening, thanks to the performance area’s whimsical furnishings; there were colossal orange and green hacky sacks, not to mention a giant stuffed bear who leaned in toward the reading from the children’s section, as if nervous about what he might overhear.
Almond, who has young children himself, knows all about finding humor in uncomfortable or risky scenarios. Just as he was observing that the evening’s readings would contain some profanity, essayist/memoirist Brandon Schrand moved to the front of the room with his young daughter. At first, Almond reined himself in, censoring certain words: “Bloop bloop bloop,” he said in the middle of a sentence. “That’s not in the story,” he clarified, “that’s just my internal sound of distress that pops up when I’m uncomfortable. Like when I have to swear in front of small children.” But once he got a permissive nod from Schrand, he let loose, enthusiastically blurting out an instruction culled from Letters from People Who Hate Me: “Lick my balls, you fag!”
Another highlight came when Almond read from his collection, Bad Poetry. Before reading the first poem, he warned us: “You might assume these were written when I was a teenager. Or maybe a 20 something. Or a 30 year old. But a 36 year old with a book out and an MFA? Yeah.” About one poem, he said, “I dare you to map the logic of this poem. Or better yet, punch yourself in the throat. It would be more relaxing.”
When he opened the floor up to questions, Almond started by asking the audience to grant him eight or nine seconds of awkward silence. “I love that moment, it really bring the sense of failure home, for me, but also I think, in some ways, for you.” When hands shot up too quickly, Almond stopped them – “No, no, ease into it.”
The first question mentioned that the speaker had met Ben George, Almond’s editor at Lookout Books, back when George was getting his MFA at UIdaho.
“But have you slept with him, like I have?” countered Almond.
It’s a subtle sort of irony that Almond was at his most sincere when first year poetry MFA Eric Greenwell asked about humor in writing. What humor offers, according to Almond, is “a moment of forgiveness… Comedy allows you to speak in explicit moral terms without moralizing.” Conceding that any deliberate effort to be funny is doomed to failure and will always drag a story down, Almond told us that humor should be allowed to grow organically out of all the serious stuff of literature and life – shame and grief, for example: “It’s a byproduct of the determined pursuit of truth.”