Tailwinds Press, 2015
Trade paperback, 229 pages, $14
Review by Robert Boucheron
Kinda Sorta American Dream, Steve Karas’s first book, includes fourteen stories of varied length, ten of which have appeared in magazines. “Collected” in the title is a misnomer. Whiskey Paper Press published his Mesogeios, a chapbook of five stories, in August 2016. His stories have also appeared in three obscure anthologies.
The theme is announced in the title, and each story contributes to the theme. What is the American Dream? Who is an American? Karas’s central characters are old white guys, young white guys, a middle-aged woman from Ukraine, an older black cop, and a Punjabi-American girl.
The settings range from a high-rise in New York City to the suburban Midwest, and from the urban decay of Detroit to affluent coastal Florida. Chicago is present, and rural Mexico. Karas pays scant attention to place, though. He shows details: the swarm of love bugs in Florida, a snowstorm in Michigan, or “our old two-story colonial . . . the floors creaking all night long.”
The stories vary from a two-page, one-paragraph scrawl about a college prankster who calls himself Adventure Man to the forty-eight-page “It Takes a Village.” In the latter, a young social worker named Andrew moves from Chicago to Clearwater, Florida, to take a job in a public high school. Andrew’s wife is pregnant, and the two are anxious to start life anew. The school is a comic version of hell, full of demonic students like Cole and accursed teachers like Big Brad. Armed only with inspirational slogans and a daffy optimism, Andrew is put to the test.
While the set-up is predictable, the outcome is not. The story could end in disaster. Andrew takes Cole, who has been beaten by his father, to the hospital, and the school principal, nicknamed “Little Napoleon,” suspends Andrew for inappropriate contact with a student. In the last two pages, the hero snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. He lands a job at another school.
Karas is no beginner. He must have sparred in some creative writing gym. It seems almost certain that he has worked in a restaurant kitchen, taught in a public school, attended a conference, and smoked a cigarette. He has a sharp eye and a good ear. Sam, who owns and runs a diner in “Sixteen Hundred Closest Friends,” narrates this paragraph:
I slid Dan a piece of pumpkin pie. It matched his dyed hair. “I’m here twelve hours a day,” I said. “Been working since I was thirteen, you know that. Never had the time to chase around cocktail waitresses like you.”
In the title story, set at a Michigan boot camp for Santa Claus impersonators, “the Harvard of Santa schools,” the narrator Wayne says: “It’s amazing how exaggerated friendliness is here.” On the third page, he explains that his mother-in-law paid for three days of training for wife Barb and himself. “Before the plant shut down almost a year ago, we paid our mortgage on time for a nice ranch outside Detroit, Barb stayed home with the boys—now fourteen, eleven, and six—and I made a modest living. . . . We were kinda sorta living the American Dream.”
Gill is a gung-ho Santa who is tan and jolly. Gill knows the words to Christmas carols, volunteers at hospitals, and gets on Wayne’s nerves. Here also, the put-upon, self-doubting hero wins at the last minute. Suited up and enthroned at the Midland Mall, with a little boy writhing in his lap, Wayne makes a coin disappear, then pulls it from behind the boy’s ear.
Karas is not afraid of cliché. The American Dream is a cliché, one that Edward Albee exploded back in 1961 in his play The American Dream. And cliché is not always wrong. It can be an economical way to show what a dull person thinks or how his predicament mirrors our own. But Karas piles it on, to the point that we wonder how deeply he cares about his characters. In “Savior,” a doomsday survivor of the Mayan Calendar in 2012 ends by smoking a cigar and blowing smoke rings. “The Uncounted” ends with fireworks on the Fourth of July, exploding over a woman narrator who lost her son, a marine killed in Kandahar. In “Sculpting Sand,” the middle-aged hero with a wayward teen son and birth-defect granddaughter consoles himself this way: “I’ve come to accept that if we’re going to make it through this ordeal, it’s going to have to be one day at a time. That’s what they preach in recovery.”
Karas is uncomfortably close to preaching here. For my money, his most interesting hero is the fortyish man, Pauly, in “Kingdom Come.” Pauly runs the Coney dog restaurant his father started years ago in Detroit. The restaurant goes bankrupt, while across the street the new Hot Dog King thrives. Pauly does everything the good old way and rejects the ideas of his college-student nephew, Austin. On the last page:
he sits in his living room recliner with the lights off, drinks vodka straight. He flips through one of Austin’s textbooks on the coffee table. He calls his old man. He doesn’t answer. Doesn’t have voicemail. It just rings. So I’ve hit rock bottom, Dad, he wants to tell [him]. Tell me what I’m supposed to do now.
The design of the book is first-rate, with clear layout, good cover art, and admirable text editing. The publisher, Tailwinds, is a small press in New York City, new in 2015. In an era of declining standards, when a major press like W. W. Norton issues books riddled with errors, Tailwinds ought to be praised. Karas is lucky to have fallen into their hands. We readers are lucky to catch them both.