by Betsy Robinson
On the surface, this odyssey of a book appears to be a 13-year-old Hispanic science nerd’s wild journey from 1981 in Sacramento, to adulthood, including a quest to save her brother who has been unjustly accused of a crime, a desert adventure with scorpions and underworld cult characters, and a completely unpredictable transcendence in adulthood.
I’m a Steve Almond fan from two short story anthologies, his insightful political nonfiction, Bad Stories, and our common reverence for John Williams’s novel, Stoner (expressed so eloquently by Almond and many other writers, a so-called group of “Stoners,” in the documentary The Act of Becoming). So when I heard Almond’s first novel was being published, I rushed to get an advanced reading copy.
My experience of Almond’s work led me to expect hilarity, edginess, and first-rate compassion-based philosophy and politics, so I was really surprised when the first hundred or so pages of All the Secrets of the World read like a YA novel about an immigrant Hispanic 13-year-old girl. Simply because I’m not that interested in YA, I might have abandoned this book if it were written by anyone but Steve Almond. Even though I prefer going into books blind, about 100 pages in I checked the publisher’s description for reassurance that the writer I want to read was doing something of adult substance. Yes, the copy assured me, something exciting was coming.
And boy, I’m glad I kept reading.
This is not only a book of substance, but a tour de force of technique—divided into five Book sections that intentionally and organically build from YA simplicity to no-nonsense police detective-story genre to full-on poetic literary sophistication with a gloriously transcendent ending. (If you’re a Stoner aficionado, you may recognize the narrative and character influences—I swear it’s impossible not to have them if Stoner is part of your foundation.) It’s perfectly paced, eventually weaving the genres together with a lot of journalistic narrative. There is some beautiful writing about a terrain and self-destructive human flaws reminiscent of my favorite TV drama, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad (which I consider on a par with Shakespeare for its themes, characters, and poetry; I suspect this is another work that Almond and I revere). And eventually there’s some badly needed, delightfully entertaining humor in the banter of Hispanic cops (cousins) going rogue and the aforementioned Young Adult immigrant heroine.
There is nothing wrong with appropriating from great artists as long as you have fully digested the magic so that the influence morphs into your own work, from your own muse and soul. And Steve Almond has done that.
I like the contradictions in the young heroine, Lorena. She is shy, innocent, a science geek, and given to great passion and contradictory actions when her commitment to justice is tweaked. That rang true and I don’t know that I’ve read it before. (And it would be a choice role for an actress.)
All the Secrets of the World goes to such unexpected places. Sometimes it’s like an escalating fever dream; other times it’s an exercise in exhaustion—in a good way; you feel the same wearing down that the characters are enduring when negotiating the American justice system. There is a detective mystery, philosophical quandaries, and perversion in many forms (personal, religious, hyperbolic frenzy resulting in “Bad Stories”). In other words, it is a gripping story of our cultural mess in the form of a big commercial multi-genre crime and unjust punishment novel.
I love the particularly Steve-Almond theme—how distorted our reality is by exaggerations, part-truths, and a lack of nuance because blanket good and bad stories fuel our lust for drama and sense of superiority. And how transformation only comes from exploring the dark matter within us.
I also loved the exposed innocence (meaning “vulnerability”) of some of the characters—people who are condemned by our American culture to stereotypes. This can break your heart if you let it.
As the tension of false truth rises, Almond sometimes gives the reader a release. Just when you want to scream or punch someone, you get to see a true truth that happens in the future and is either seeded into the narrative or is revealed by the chronology of the storytelling. Or, in the case of the scene that fueled my comment about exhaustion, you get a clinical explanation of what the character and you are feeling. These seeds of clarity not only give the reader some necessary hope amidst the frustration and pain, but act as teasers, pushing the plot forward. He didn’t borrow this from anyone I recognize; perhaps one day I’ll borrow it from him.
All in all, a really good book. And did I mention the ending is transcendent?