Revisiting “My Life in Heavy Metal” by Steve Almond

I don’t usually read books more than once, but I was perusing my bookshelf at home and saw this brightly colored, hardcover leaf in the pile, two blurry bodies blending together in the middle somewhere. It’s My Life in Heavy Metal by Steve Almond.

I came across this book when I was in college. I was near graduation in 2002, when it came out, and I was in a fiction writing workshop course led by Lucy Corin at James Madison University. It was for advanced fiction writing, although, looking back, I wouldn’t consider myself that “advanced” then. But I guess for a 21-year-old college boy-man with his life ahead of him, I was as “advanced” as I could have been then. These were the days before children, before the first of a few careers, before marriage even, though I was in love more than I deserved to be – a sentiment I still feel.

Part of the course’s requirement including hosting a contemporary short-story writer’s book tour stop at the college in Virginia’s chilly mountains. Ms. Corin invited the writers for the semester and I was on the committee that helped set up and advertise the event.

On the posters, I wanted to write, “He writes about sex a lot,” but Ms. Corin thought that was too brash. Looking back, she was right, even if it would have filled the auditorium with hormonal college students whose heads and bodies were filled 90 percent with sex anyway. Plus, there’s more to Almond’s writing than the sex therein.

Instead, I devoured the pages in my search for a quote that would bring the masses. I found it. We pasted pamphlets and posters all over campus and Harrisonburg. In my memory, I see the dim auditorium nearly full of curious faces hoping to hear something they would remember. Hopefully they did. Judging by the line of people who bought books for Steve Almond to sign, the reading and the night was a success.

None of this tells you much about the greatness of Steve Almond’s calculated, poignant engagement with the disengagement his characters show in their relationships. It’s an amazing achievement worth reading more than once, and I’m glad I am.

And the quote? The one that filled the quiet waiting and wanting people in the auditorium? The one that I framed and put on my desk at my first newspaper job, because it made me think of my lover, my wife (even though she strays far from Republicanism)? I’ll end with it. It comes from the story in the collection called “How to Love a Republican.”

There are so many competing interests on the human heart. For those of us truly terrified of death, intent on leaving some kind of mark, ploughing through our impatient twenties with an agenda, there are moments when chemistry — the chemistry between bodies, the chemistry of connection — seems no more than a sentimental figment. And then something happens, you meet a woman and you can’t stop looking at her mouth. Everything she does, every word and gesture, stirs inside you, strikes the happy gong. The way she throws herself into a fresh field of snow. The delicacy of her sneezes, like a candle being snuffed. The sugary sting of whiskey on her tongue. Chemistry in its sensual aspects….

Steve Almond, “How to Love a Republican,” My Life in Heavy Metal

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