Hello there, Story366 loyalists! Look at me, posting two days in a row. It’s like 2016 all over again … if I just did this 364 more times. Won’t be doing that, but as mentioned in yesterday’s post on Samantha Hunt, this winter break free-time-a-thon is like the best thing in the world. I mean, it’s kind of like summer, only for one month, and, well, colder. I suppose there’s also more urgency to get things done over winter break than summer break, as there’s less time, but there’s also the end of the year/start of the year dynamic, me trying to get in as many posts as I can in 2017. Today is #16 on the year—far less than 366—and even if I finished as strongly as possible, I’d still only end up with 19 for 2017. So, not even the once-a-week schedule that I’d planned, but hey, we do what we can.
What kind of gets me about not doing more posts this year is that it means I haven’t read as many books, or as many new books, and going back to the start of this blog, that was always my original goal: read as many new books and discover as many new writers as I could. In a normal, blogless year, I’ve more than done that so far—I think all 16 entries in 2017 have been on new collections—but there’s certainly many more that I haven’t cracked, acquired, let alone heard of. After being ultra-caught up on the world of contemporary short fiction at the end of 2016, I’m yet again behind. Luckily, there’s all kinds of lists out there that at least tell me what I’ve missed, such as this from Paper Darts, a best-of for collections for 2017. and then there’s always the reliable Dan Wickett at Emerging Writers Network; Dan keeps a list of all the story collections that come out every year, so he’s kind of like that set of World Book Encyclopedias that was on the shelf in all my parochial school classrooms, at hand when I needed him (and often taken for granted).
The important thing is I’m enjoying collections now and enjoyed the heck out of one today, ActivAmerica by Meagan Cass, out from the University of North Texas Press as the most recent winner of their Katherine Anne Porter Prize last year. I’ve read a bevy of stories by Cass—she’s widely published in journals—and I’m happy that she has the collection out that she deserves. And she certainly delivers with this debut.
I read six stories in preparation for this post, a mix of longer/regular-sized stories and shorts, and liked everything I read. Cass has the ability to come up with weird and wonderful concepts, surely, such as today’s feature, “The All-Mutant Soccer Team,” but can also bend a realistic story, about more or less average people, into something peculiar and engaging as well. An example of this is the title story, “ActivAmerica,” about a middle-aged superstore employee engaged in a nationwide health program, basically making her run a mile a day, every day. Cass has the ability to pull her reader into her concept rather quickly, making each story an exciting adventure into a clear, fully realized world. She has some overlap in themes—people seem to get cancer in a lot of her stories—and they all seem to take place in and around Chappaqua, New York. Overall, though, this was the most fun I’ve had with a book in a while, as Cass was able to dazzle me with her creativity, characterization, and settings over and over again.
“The All-Mutant Soccer Team” had me thinking of the X-Men and that kind of mutant going in, but in this story, Cass is writing about the kind of mutant that results from too much nuclear waste in the local lake, nuclear waste that has turned everyone’s skin green or their teeth a glowy blue or has given kids flippers instead of hands. The corporation responsible won’t pay for the clean-up, but instead agrees to pay half of everyone’s medical bills. The logical answer, of course, is for everyone to move, but then we wouldn’t have a story, would we? Plus, the take-what’s-coming-to-you attitude of the people in this town plays into their identity, plays into the plot of the story, too: It’s easy to believe that people, roots down, will just bite the bullet, make the best of a situation, rather than face the horrors of moving, starting new lives elsewhere. In that way, this story serves as a pretty obvious metaphor for stagnation, why anybody who lives in any shitty place doesn’t just move to a nicer place.
The story is focused on this eleven-year-old kid who goes to middle school and plays on the soccer team coached by his dad. Cass seems to be poking at something else here, as the soccer team is where all the mutated kids end up, along with the geeks and the home-schooled kids, as the cool, healthy, non-mutant kids play the more popular sports, football and basketball and cheerleading and the like. Not having gone to a school that had soccer—plus, I hate soccer—I can imagine this is how many school’s soccer teams are assembled (though in reality, soccer players are excellent athletes and have simply endeared themselves to the metric system of team sports), a bunch of outcasts and mismatches and leftovers. Literally, though, these kids are monsters, and instead of A.V. club or flag corps, Cass sticks them on the soccer team.
Anyway, the problem with the all-mutant soccer team is that nobody wants to play them. Of course, nobody will travel to play them at home—hey, another metaphor, the way the richer suburban schools never wanted to come to the poorer suburbs when I was in school, too afraid they’d all get shot as they filed off the bus—so they get some road games, but by the time this story gets going, nobody really wants them on their fields, either. One school even says they’d like to see more tests done, you know, just to be safe, that mutation isn’t contagious. Because the mutant kids are the protagonists, Cass’s own Bad News Bears, we feel sorry for them, see them as those ragtag underdogs that just want their shot.
That’s as far as I’ll go with the plot, as really, for a regular-sized story (or non-short), “The All-Mutant Soccer Team” isn’t that long. Cass also keeps the action moving quickly. Amidst all the games and canceled games and mutantism, however there’s still this kid, this narrator, and there we get another call-out, this one to sports story conventions, his dad a real jack ass, an overbearing coach who runs the poor little mutants to death because he thinks it builds character (and leg muscles). The climax of this story involves the dad, but really, the story sits with this kid, this mutant—one who knows cancer is just one checkup away—who has to deal with his condition, his dad, and being an eleven-year-old kid in America, flippers or hands or whathaveyou.
ActivAmerica is filled with stories like this, character sketches that take place in fantastic worlds, be they filled with mutants, ghosts, orphans, or divorcées, anyone on the fringe who has to overcome an extra pile of shit because they feel just a bit different. It’s a terribly fun collection to read, the scope of Cass’s imagination and heart both seemingly limitless.