In honor of the publication of Nick Almeida’s prizewinning chapbook, we are excited to share with you Steve Almond’s introduction to this wonderful collection. Read Almond’s introduction below, and the title story from the chapbook in New Voices, then head over to Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!
Get Ready to Feel the Uncanny
I kind of love judging writing contests. First (and most regrettably) I love the idea that someone thinks my judgment is worth a hoot. That’s always nice. But also: I grew up as a writer in the small press, flinging one manuscript after another into the wishing well of contests and lit magazines. My pal, the poet and essayist Camille Dungy, likes to tell a story about our time together in the salt mines of MFA school. I had managed to publish a couple of stories and assumed, like others in the program, that I was preternaturally talented.
Then she house sat for me one summer and received on my behalf no fewer than one hundred rejections. This was the secret to my success: I submitted constantly, shamelessly. It was tremendously exciting, not just in a lotto ticket sort of way, but because I had the sense that I was participating in the future of American letters, that all the magazines and contests were basically incubators for the next wave of writers.
I like the idea that—some two decades later—I can play a role in identifying and promoting that next wave.
Of course, as inevitably happens when I’m asked to judge anything, I was left feeling racked by indecision and guilt, my two favorite emotions. I hate the idea that some emerging writer will interpret my sensibility as a measure of their talent. I told all of the finalists of this contest that their manuscripts deserved to be published books, and I meant it.
But I can also tell you the precise moment that I decided to choose Nick Almeida’s Masterplans (a copy of which you now hold). It comes towards the end of the first story, which, to this point, has offered the curious account of work colleague who shows up at the office dressed in Elvis Presley regalia. Our narrator, clearly discomfited by this sartorial extravagance, proffers the following confession:
We are not unique people. Nor are we the beige clichés of the corporate class. We have horrific fears, our children suffer in ways that in certain nights eviscerate us, and once in our childhoods we heard chains rattling from the end of a dark hallway. We recognize and have even described the dangers of othering our colleague. But his Elvis has damaged too much. We have been forced, in the absence of his reasons, to look at ourselves, the origins of our own outrage, and return again (and again) to the individual moments of our distress.
Mein Gott! What a sudden and shocking revelation. Of our collective anxieties and vulnerabilities and fears, of the manner in which even the pettiest of our judgments pries open portal of truth. I was rocked back in my seat by how abruptly the author casts us from office gossip into the deep rough of personal doubt.
That, my friends, is what I’m always looking for in writing: the danger of self-revelation, of what Freud called Das Unheimliche (“the uncanny”), those moments in which the familiar becomes strange and versa vice.
Almeida does this over and over. He stages brief, dizzying dramas in which the astonishing comes to feel inevitable. “A whole life can be this way,” he writes, at the end of “Gourd Queen,” a piece about a ne’er-do-well brother who flails about on the wedding day of his celebrated sister. “Some blaze forth while you stutter, you guess, you pick your thigh mole through your pocket and wonder, Who is right, Who cares to catch you, Which shoe is the right shoe, and How will I go on?”
The title story of this collection features numerous elements of what I came to think of as the Almeidan universe: a woman with a prosthetic hook for a hand, a waterbed rent by sexual hijinks, a deadly cottonmouth, a plane crash. But at its heart—and this is really key to the whole shebang—the author is writing about grief and trauma, how we survive what we live through.
That’s the common concern in all these stories, what turns them into a collection rather than just a buffet of the bizarre. Over and over, Almeida is asking: What happens when we get hurt? How do we survive, knowing we must suffer injury and die?
I’m thinking now of the mother and son, both gravely ill, who go shopping for funeral homes in “Can You Paint a Smile?” I’m thinking of this line, in particular, about the mother: “Possibilities smolder behind her eyelids, my mother: yearning for any furnace of interest, of love.”
That’s what these stories are after here, the burden of hope shouldered amid the fragility of our existence. To quote one of the old masters: I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
I found it in Masterplans, over and over.
Now it’s your turn.