Kinda Sorta American Dream: Collected Stories
By Steve Karas
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
When Steve Karas is at his best - and he's at his best frequently here - he's a funny and sharp observer of good old human behavior, capable of getting to the heart of things and working out what's behind a bizarre situation. This is exemplified especially in the closing story, "Savior." Its Mayan-apocalypse theme might seem a little dated in 2015, but that's not to take away from how Karas digs into the desperate need for human connection behind the apocalypse party he sets up. Or check out the disappointment that drives the characters of the Detroit-themed "Kingdom Come." Sure, as a Detroiter I might just be excited to see coney dogs mentioned in fiction, but even with that aside, there's still a lot behind a simple conflict between restaurants.
Besides, did I mention he was funny? Because "Kinda Sorta American Dream" itself, one of the strongest in the collection, had me laughing at every turn. Part of it is the completely unexpected subject matter - it's about a couple who does mall-Santa training - and part of it's how Karas mines that subject matter for great comic moments, especially the ending, which is unexpected but also the perfect way to cap the story off. This also speaks to the guy's eye for detail, which goes back to his ability to zoom into a character. And when he adds a little topicality to all these strengths, he really shines. On "Blue," he takes apart America's issues with police brutality and racism; "Sixteen Hundred Closest Friends" takes on the disconnected nature of internet friendships (ooh! I really love this one! Those characters!); "To Abdo, with Love" takes on America's relationship with the Middle East without losing sight of the people involved in the politics.
I know this is a lot of praise, but there's a downside - not every story is on this level. Sometimes the stories seem underdeveloped, not quite getting beneath the surface of the action; I think "Red Clay" could've illuminated more about sexual politics, and I wasn't sure what to do with the YouTube-themed "Toys in Closets," whose admittedly unique setup doesn't quite seem essential to the story. It also feels a little overstuffed, which is also a problem with the rather lengthy "It Takes a Village." Sometimes he gets a little carried away with stacking lot threads, and sometimes untangling them left me dissatisfied. Still, if you take the best stuff here, you'll see Steve Karas is really onto something, even though I would've liked it more if four or five stories had been chopped.
Out of 10: 8.7