4 Stars - Strongly recommended by Lavinia
Publisher: Tailwinds Press
Released: December 2015
Reviewed by Lavinia Ludlow
Plainly stated, Kinda Sorta American Dream is social commentary on the everyday life and pursuits of the common American. Steve Karas reserves us front row seats in a theater streaming the intimate inner workings, thoughts, and desires of fast food chain managers, YouTube stars, Facebook stalkers, Mr. and Mrs. Claus’ in training, all striving to overcome the odds and to survive one day at a time.
It’s easy to approach a collection titled Kinda Sorta American Dream with the assumption that every piece will be about Smalltown, USA middle-aged white guys complaining about their wives, jobs, and blue balls, and thinking about cheating on their wives, quitting their jobs, and sitting in front of the TV self-medicating with Doritos and a bottle of gas station whiskey. Quite the contrary, this collection contains an eclectic mix of protagonists and points of view that represent a diverse America, from the first generation Indian girl wishing she could communicate openly with her mother the way she believes all American girls talk with their mothers (HA! that was a laugh out loud moment) to the lonely thirty-something career woman trying to find happiness in online dating to the twelve-year-old girl who wants to see her Syrian pen pal freed from an environment of war and violence. The contrasting perspectives bring a broad spectrum of color to the collection, and paint a realistic picture of a real American society.
Regardless of race, creed, or color, most protagonists find themselves in transitory periods, striving to alter their fates or to persevere over hopeless circumstances—think being the man of the house one day to unemployed the next, and your pride in shambles like the men in The Full Monty, minus the stripping and ’80s music, plus a Santa suit and Christmas songs blaring over the mall PA system.
For ten years running I was racking up World’s Best Dad T-shirts and mugs each Christmas. Now whose fault is it I can’t keep up the act? Whose fault is it I’m reduced to vying for the title of Super Santa?
Other subjects are more aimless, living the daily slog and hoping to find glimmers of happiness in bland dating encounters, in being someone’s side whack, or in other forms of mediocrity wherein they dupe themselves into believing that they’re kinda sorta satisfied in what they could get, even if low-hanging fruit, or even the fruit rotting at the base of the tree.
Karas has a simplistic writing style, and there’s nothing flashy or fancy about it, there are no hidden corners or agendas with twists. The result is a book without awkward transitions, or opportunity to venture into unnecessary sub-plots. By steering clear of clichés and literary gristle, he tackles the art of fictional density in an original and brilliant manner. In a mere few sentences, he can convey a multifaceted conflict, or in a notable case, a single seven-word sentence: “Hello and goodbye all in one breath,” a man says as he and his wife welcome their stillborn baby into the world.
He opens his collection with a dynamite piece, Ain’t Like the Movies, where in a woman passive-aggressively outs her adult son from her house by getting a bunch of cats in which he’s severely allergic. In a mere few pages, Karas not only sets the scene, but we learn that this young man is not only a second priority to his mother’s boyfriend, but he’s a minimum wage drone on a sinking ship known as Blockbuster, has a high schooler for a boss and a father who makes his own son call him by first name. In straightforward fragments, Karas fully illustrates the protagonist’s striving and frustration.
I’m driving around town looking for “Now Hiring” signs. I’m desperate. I’m willing to take a job anywhere at this point, to start saving, begin my life.
Another story high in conflict and dense with content is Sculpting Sand. Karas balances the right amount of background, observations, emotional responses, and dialogue to narrate the story of a father whose twenty-something son is on the run from the law. This man finds himself snarled between his wife’s desire to discipline and his desire to help his son:
I know there’s a fine line between helping and enabling. I understand that, but every father wants to see his son become a man.
My only qualm with short fiction is the limited real estate it allows writers to build. There are a few instances when a story lacked sufficient anecdote, although, never severe enough to create an unsatisfying experience, just enough to evoke an ever so slight yearn for more resolve, as if Karas had forgotten to flick off the light before leaving a room.
All in all, Kinda Sorta American Dream reveals much about the evident problems in our society, and injects harsh realities into delusions surrounding the traditional American Dream. We are an over-medicated, under-nourished, and self-mutilating nation whose social affairs have reached such a dismal state that most can no longer identify with fictional TV families like the Simpsons and the Bundys. Yes, we continue to laugh at these dysfunctional shows and believe them to be satire on the traditional American household, but no one’s divorced, splitting custody, spouse-beating, philandering, unemployed (by choice), and both families inhabit homes in suburbia on a single man’s salary. In reality, the majority of American homes are broken, we are at war abroad and on our own soil, with our economic recessions, our personal and professional demons, and most of all, ourselves.
But Karas’ collection doesn’t obliterate hope of a brighter future. His characters fight the good fight, even if their interpretation of the “good fight” may vary from one to the next. Through their experiences, we see that perhaps we can find meaning in our journey toward a destination only we can define, and we must continue to hope that the result is worth the sacrifices and suffering beyond our wildest (American) dreams.
Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer dividing time between San Francisco and London. Her debut novel, alt.punk (2011), explored the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. Her sophomore novel, Single Stroke Seven (2016), explores the lives of independent artists coming of age in perilous economic conditions. Both titles can be purchased through Casperian Books. Her short works have been published in Pear Noir!, Curbside Splendor Semi-Annual Journal, and Nailed Magazine, and her indie lit reviews have appeared in Small Press Reviews, The Rumpus, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review.