ActivAmerica, by Meagan Cass. Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, October 2017. 192 pages. $14.95, paper.
I’m a bad loser and an even worse winner. My wife won’t go mini-golfing with me. I’ve slammed bar stools against pinball machines. I’ve rage-quit every video game after two weeks of playing and then never looked back.
It’s with this attitude I approach sports stories. Somebody’s going home a fucking loser, which is a real attraction for me.
The moral center of your typical sports story has shifts in power that naturally drive the narrative with plenty of time and energy left for caring about the shape of the characters and the lives the competition rests in. The world is already built and the final confrontation is already an afterthought.
In these ways, Meagan Cass has sidestepped not the moral center, but the narrative itself: people aren’t just a backdrop for the feelings of competition. She subverts the surface of the sports story immediately in her collection ActivAmerica. The first story, about an all-mutant but relatively-normal-otherwise team of youth soccer wannabes, hits a point around the end of the second act where Cass lays out what we’re expecting and will not be getting: the rally of the good guys, the cracks in the power of the bad guys, the march to either literal or emotional victory.
The opposite doesn’t happen in its place, thankfully sparing us from an overwrought downturn in luck and happenstance that leads us to an undeserved sadness we didn’t want. Instead, life just happens. The team gets cancelled on, gets frustrated, gets other interests. They want to try whiskey for the first time and listen to “Once Upon the Cross” by Deicide and hang out after-hours on the toxic beach that gave them their blue teeth and fin-like hands.
The comfort-food showdowns don’t happen in these stories, and the pathos evoked is better off because of it. I want to see Daniel crane kick that smug high school dickweed as much as the next person, but his triumph came in the face of a struggle that was only covered to the best extent of an eighties’ kid-friendly action drama, with an assist on good faith from Joe Esposito telling us about being the best around. There’s more there than that, but we have bring it to the table, for example, in “The Parents’ Guide to UltraSport Children”:
If a certain hit seems too hard, if your child takes a minute too long to get up, if you hear certain stories in the news—Ultrasport children with brain damage, Ultrasport children, newly married, beaiting each other up, Ultrasport children, cut from their team, committing suicide, a heart bursting bursting in a body grown too fast—if you fear you have made a mistake, remember: we were not born to sit on couches, content. To be human is to test your limits, to push yourself, to move beyond the body and the heart you were given.
After awhile I noticed that sickness—cancers, debilitating circumstances, unknown diseases—keeps coming up. It made sense: what can someone do when their days are numbered or their abilities are limited? How do you be the best version of yourself if you can’t even recognize what you’ve become? ActivAmerica is, above all else, a book about achievement where achievement is not expected or allowed. Even the title story itself is all exercise and health insurance, two harsh competitions with oneself projected into the world—or vice versa.
The magic elements of the stories could come off as a satire of our world of no quarter or simply an additional layer to showing how truly mad anyone must be to try to be happy. It both works and doesn’t, with a story like “The All-Mutant Soccer Team” benefitting greatly from the exaggerated hardships but a story like “Girlhunt, Spring 1999” sitting in that “Semplica Girls” by George Saunders territory for me, using the absurd and abstract to reach towards something that never comes together.
The collection finds its greatest successes the closer it stays to its theme. “Interview with the Ghost of Jaws’ First Victim” and “Helicopter Dad” are two of a handful of stories that fall outside the sports motifs of the book—or appear to on the surface, though the ideas of classifying them as “swimming” and “combat sports” at their base-level seems like a bit of a stretch—and simply claiming that there’s an air of competition to something doesn’t quite cut it for me. Both are good but feel slight, maybe because of their oblique connection to the unifying thread, but maybe just based on their location in the book, right after those first three stories that are all bangers.
Much like a good Ramones album, there’s a lot of great stuff and the stuff that isn’t so great doesn’t stick around long. Twenty-one stories in one hundred ninety-two pages sets a decent pace, with the best jams standing out and the other stuff fading away. It’s not all incredible, but I felt pretty incredible after reading “Calling All Soloflex Men”:
And here is what Ray LeBoeuf knows, what any lifting man knows, but won’t tell you: every human transformation has its hidden fractures, its loose ends. We can all point with our eyes closed to the places on our bodies that remain outside the reach of the elastometer weight straps, or the treadmill runs, or the grapefruit lunches. At night, turning in our beds, newly strong or newly sober, we breath in and out and try not to jostle the hunger or the desire or the anger or the lack that is not banished, is no transmuted, is simply shifted to another, less obvious place inside us.
“Calling All Soloflex Men” hits the same stride and territory as the title story, with Cass at her best, the sport being a challenge against oneself instead of two entities going at it. The title story shows exercise as a means to living a better life and “Calling All Soloflex Men” shows exercise as a means to losing touch with a better life.
Our narrator has a life that merely needs to be tapped around the edges. He has tension with his wife, she crashes the car, goes to AA, does her part to fix her life so the surrounding, uncontrollable parts of it have a better chance to improve themselves. Our narrator, her husband, misses the point. He gets an exercise machine and gets in shape, feels as good as he looks. In the process, though, he forgets why he’s doing it.
It feels like a Midwestern idea to me—the fastest way to my heart—a lifestyle of working hard to save your life and then, once it’s saved, not knowing how to make it continue on without the work that got you there. His family becomes more distant as he exercises more and more. The work is the means, not the end, but when the end is just a sense of satisfaction and not a trophy, it’s hard to tell if you’ve won.
Where and how do we find victory? Read this damn book and find out.
Ryan Werner is a cook at a preschool in the Midwest. He plays a Gibson Corvus and an old Ampeg VT-22 in a loud instrumental rock band called Young Indian. You can find him online at ryanwernerwritesstuff.com and also @YeahWerner on Instagram, where you will be inundated with picture of comic books, indie lit releases/excerpts, professional wrestlers, and 1980s guitar ads.