by Steve Karas
[Warning: Slight spoilers ahead]
A better title for Kinda Sorta American Dream – the recent short story collection from Steve Karas (Tailwind Press) – I cannot imagine. These tight, focused stories encapsulate the hesitant optimism of characters struggling, kicking, scratching for some piece of traditional American success. The stories in Kinda Sorta American Dream are histories of the fractured twenty-first century, histories of the young (and not-so-young) adults coming of age during this singular moment in time, histories of a society’s upheaval.
What I find most striking about Karas’s collection is the stubborn continuation of hope that remains at the end of each story; even after the most horrific events, even after their identities are questioned or even obliterated, characters in Kinda Sorta American Dream plug on with their lives, finding either some comfort or even defiance in their apparent resignation.
Andrew, the lead character in “It Takes a Village,” finds himself at the end of the story being transferred to a far less meaningful job (as a social worker for elementary school students, as opposed to high school); his wife has just suffered a second miscarriage; his family and social/support network is over a thousand miles away, after he and his wife had moved from Chicago to Florida. How does Andrew cope? He “turned on the Zen fountain and checked his schedule. He breathed in, exhaled, and waited for the next appointment, the next young life he’d do his best to save.”
Almost every story ends on notes like this; the characters have been in fist fights, have cursed out their fathers, have infected themselves with parasites, have been reduced to mall Santas, and yet they push forward, they carry on, they keep clawing for their own version of the “American dream.”
Wayne, the main character in the collection’s title story, offers perhaps the best summation of Kinda Sorta American Dream: “I do my best to stumble through it without letting on how lost I am.” Every lead character in the collection is doing the same thing, through moving to Los Angeles or quitting their IT jobs or running out on the town with their old middle-school buddies. In their attempts to hide how lost they are, however, each character seems to find a new, (at least potentially) happier path for themselves.
That’s really all one could ask of an American dream – the chance for something new.
Sean L. Corbin