In her new collection of short stories, Almost Deadly, Almost Good: Sins and Virtues, Alice Kaltman crafts a wicked and ribald catechism from the vices and redemptions of contemporary America and its litany of temptations. Neither morality tale nor fable, the collection’s fourteen stories forge hardened hearts and tempered spirits in those crucibles of the American imagination—gossip-riddled offices, beauty salons where migrant workers stifle their contempt for privileged patrons, celebrity manors perfumed with luxury and leisure, dingy hotel lounge-bars where jazz bands improv for a chance at the limelight. And while building these spaces, Kaltman’s scaffolding ties each story to one of the seven deadly sins or seven virtues, a creative architecture in which all corridors angle toward empathy.
In these evocative settings, the distinction between saint and sinner comes down to one’s perspective. Kaltman links the stories through a constellation of repeating characters, including a classically trained guitarist who’s either a doting father or an opportunistic homewrecker, an outwardly severe but meditative supervisor of a New York juvenile detention facility, and an executive assistant whose gruffness stems from a childhood of farm life under an abusive father. Others include a man who lounges on the San Diego docks with a coterie of seals, and an actor whose best gig was cosplaying “around a tech convention in San Diego in an unflattering costume, a cross between a dominatrix and dowager queen, handing out vodka shots.”
These characters function as icons or cautions, depending upon whose consciousness Kaltman centers in any given story. In “Cecil’s New Friends,” lounging with the San Diego seals grants Cecil respite: wedging himself between their plush bodies offers him salvation from the death-drive momentum of the office where he formerly worked. However, in the story “Flex,” tech-bro bodybuilder Jonny sees Cecil’s lolling with the seals; in this moment, Jonny witnesses only the specter of his “sweatpants wearing, depressed, isolated former self,” an existential threat that Jonny believed was all but exorcised by his regimen of intensive workouts and dubious protein powders.
Kaltman’s recurring characters might invite comparisons to the way that novels-in-stories, like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, use cameo appearances as a literary device that links chapters. But mercifully, this short story collection is free from the need to use characters as wooden strips in the latticework of plot—and, frankly, Kaltman’s book is better for it. The short story form allows Kaltman latitude to probe each of her vivid characters’ murky headspaces, the yearnings that pulse heartbeat-insistent in their chests, and the obsessions that warp their perceptions of the world. And centering character over the demands of plot or message, as Flannery O’Connor has argued, is the true tenet of faith for fiction writing.
That’s especially relevant for a collection orchestrated around the seven deadly sins and the seven virtues of Catholic theology. Almost Deadly, Almost Good responds to O’Connor’s charge by rendering any hint of morality relative to the characters and their interpretations of reality. In these stories, sin stems always from sincerity, from some deep-buried kernel of need. In “Come On Over to My Place,” for instance, the aspiring actor Greta happens into a house sitting gig for mega-star Bettina and her on-the-rocks actor boyfriend. Greta cannot resist siphoning off too many draughts of the good life: she knows that she will never have another chance to flirt with being “one of the haves.” As such, in Bettina’s manor, Greta’s “time became taffy,” sticky and malleable, a gummy and well-thumbed catalog of lost things: “a sapphire earring down the kitchen disposal, a La Perla thong—god knows where—and a spare AmEx Black card.”
When the stars discover Greta in their bed, Kaltman’s prose unravels Greta with barbed but sensitive humor: “For seven perfect days, until Brady and Bettina came back and found me like Goldilocks asleep on their bed, the knot in my chest dissolved, my jaw unclenched, the churlish bile that had been souring my stomach for two years turned to benign drool.” Greta’s week of divine bliss displays Kaltman’s devotion to her characters: the realization of her envy-fueled week of excess slows through Greta like a liquor dream, edged with the harsh awareness of an impending hangover.
If I’ve lingered too long on the sinners, that might be because the sinners, as Billy Joel put it, are much more fun. However, even Kaltman’s virtuous characters are vibrantly, playfully imperfect. In Kaltman’s stories, virtues aren’t coded morals, but small and fragile wards that protect the heart from tragic reversals. A short-tempered gas station attendant patiently orchestrates a final canoeing trip for his dementia-afflicted wife; the humble leader of a struggling dance company revels in the magnetism of a young dancer whose life, Kaltman implies, will be taken by the AIDS epidemic. In another story, told against the backdrop of a trip to see monkeys on a Caribbean island, a woman believes that she has sleuthed out a cruise companion’s cancer diagnosis‚ only to have the axis of her judgments tilt when her companion unexpectedly leaps overboard.
What, then, accounts for the gulf between sin and goodness? Almost Deadly, Almost Good resists any rote resolution of this question. As it should. The book is tender and searing because Kaltman resists the easy orthodoxy of transmuting her characters into the stock actors of a morality play. Whether depicted as an agent of vice or virtue, these characters remain deeply human, afflicted by those impulses—self-interest, confidence in their convictions—that will sentence each of us to a stint in the furnace, whether that’s actual or figurative hell. And it’s there, these stories show us, that a character’s mettle and their capacity for empathy are forged.
Almost Deadly, Almost Good: A Collection of Sins and Virtues
By Alice Kaltman
Published November 22, 2022
Patrick Thomas Henry is the fiction and poetry editor for Modern Language Studies. His work has recently appeared in West Branch online, LandLocked, Lake Effect, North Dakota Quarterly, and other publications. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota. You can find him online at patrickthomashenry.com or on Twitter @Patrick_T_Henry.