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Steve Almond's 'All the Secrets of the World' is a messy, maximalist social novel

Steve Almond has built a long career and loyal following with his provocative, award-winning short stories and bestselling nonfiction works, including 2004’s “Candyfreak,” which documented his deep, obsessive interest in sweets and their place in American culture. He’s got a strong, distinctive voice and he’s prolific, too, with more than a dozen books over the last two decades. So it’s something of a surprise that “All the Secrets of the World” (out May 3) is his very first novel, or at least, according to him, the first one he’s completed in apparently 30 years of trying.

Steve Almond (Courtesy Sheryl Lanzel)
Steve Almond (Courtesy Sheryl Lanzel)

The book begins in Sacramento, 1981. Lorena Saenz is 13 going on 14 and in a particularly vulnerable state. As the American-born daughter of an undocumented Honduran single mother, she’s constantly worried that she’ll return home from school to an empty house and uncertain future. Her father, remarried and living in Florida, is not present in her life. And while her body is maturing and attracting the attention of the boys — and, disconcertingly, the men — around her, she is still very much a child.

When her teacher assigns her to work with the well-off, all-American Jenny Stallworth, the contrast between them elicits snickers from her classmates. As they plot out their science fair project together, Lorena is granted a peek at what life is like inside a traditional, Reagan-era nuclear family.

Jenny’s parents welcome her warmly, though Rosemary Stallworth’s interest in her daughter’s lower class, darker-skinned schoolmate verges on patronizing. Jenny’s father, Marcus, however, seems to take a genuine interest in her. At first, it appears he might become something of a surrogate father to Lorena, encouraging her interest in science and counseling her to be bolder and more confident in her intellect. But Almond is not one for subtlety and quickly tips his hand so there’s no mistaking where their narrative is headed — Marcus is a predator, and in case the allusions to “Lolita” weren’t already apparent, Almond abruptly shifts to calling Lorena “Lo.”

“Mr. Stallworth reached across Lo and jerked at the door handle. ‘It gets stuck,’ he murmured, nudging the door open with his knuckles. Lo’s seat belt had tugged at her shirt, exposing a band of belly skin, against which the hairs of his forearm brushed, ever so lightly. A dark possibility rose between them like a coil of smoke then dissolved.”

It’s a too-familiar story: the suburban family, seemingly perfect from the outside, is in fact rotting from within and Marcus, the cowed, mealy-mouthed father, channels his angst and dissatisfaction into a perverse infatuation with his daughter’s underage friend. Lorena, hungry for validation, is intrigued by his interest, and seeks out opportunities to be around him in the hopes of something more, even if she isn’t quite sure what “more” might mean.

The cover of Steve Almond's new book "All the Secrets of the World." (Courtesy Zando)

This is exceptionally fraught territory, but it can be done well. I’m reminded of the Aja Gabel short story, “In The Time of Adonis,” which also focuses on the budding sexuality of a teenage girl, and explores the disorienting blend of fear and excitement the main character feels when falling under the gaze of an older man, flirting with an adulthood that’s almost within reach but for which she’s not wholly prepared. Almond isn’t interested in that, however; the illicit flirtation is merely a device used to kick the book’s messy, maximalist narrative into high gear. (Editor's note: Almond is a regular contributor to WBUR's Cognoscenti and a former co-cost of the WBUR podcast Dear Sugars)

When Lorena’s gun-toting, hotheaded brother Tony discovers her and Marcus in an awkward embrace, it sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in Mr. Stallworth’s disappearance. From here, Almond cycles through a dizzying array of storylines — a police procedural, a deep dive into the American criminal justice system, a primer on forensic science, a parable about race, class and immigration. There are desert pilgrimages, politically motivated conspiracies, and a completely inessential subplot concerning an ominous Romney-related religious cult.

Nancy Reagan appears as a character throughout, obsessively following the story of Marcus’ disappearance and making astrological charts to get better insight into the personalities at play. “I won’t rest until justice is done here, Rosemary,” says the first lady, calling to offer her support. “You have my word.” Almond has packed the novel full of quirky ideas that are more distracting than additive — it’s obvious that few, if any, darlings were killed in the making of this book. The one thing “All the Secrets of the World” is not, however, is a mystery. Almond gives readers all the pieces of the puzzle right up front; we merely watch the characters work to assemble them and lament when the powers that be prevent them from doing so.

“All the Secrets of the World” strives to be a big, important, Franzenesque novel, the kind of book that lays bare the power, corruption and lies at the heart of American society through a gripping family drama. But in his zeal to make a point, Almond loses the plot. The result is a kind of mad hybrid of a genre potboiler and a social novel; the vast scope and myriad tangents are likely to be bewildering for fans of the former, while the leaden, stock characters and overly didactic narrative voice are sure to turn off fans of the latter. Overstuffed and more than a little full of itself, “All the Secrets of the World” is too cavalier with its serious subject matter. What it lacks in depth, it tries to make up for in volume and as a result comes off as glib rather than revelatory, exploitative rather than empathetic.

Related:

Michael Patrick Brady Twitter Literature Writer
Michael Patrick Brady covers literature for WBUR.

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