Megan Cass’s latest short story anthology ActivAmerca is a slim volume that is easy to hold and easier still to read. Cass is the winner of the 2017 Katherine Ann Porter Prize in short fiction, and her beautiful prose and imagery is indeed a winning combination.
ActivAmerica is also the title of a short story described on the book cover as “A recently separated woman must run a mile a day in order to maintain her new corporate health insurance.”
In this story, the characters are real, and the prose is immensely readable. The heroine Sheila is spunky and could be someone you know, a close friend or that checker at the local supermarket. She has a tough and hilarious way of looking at the world, and before you know it, you are drawn into her universe. You will find yourself joining Sheila and her friend Connie as they get ready to run a mile a day to keep their health plan. As Sheila puts it, “our chests burning, our legs leaden with pain, the car fumes from the parking lot hot as a dumpster fire around us.”
Can Sheila keep running even when “I could feel the new muscles in my legs, every movement a sweet twinge of pain . . .”? The ending might surprise you.
The next story, “The All-Mutant Soccer Team,” is a surprisingly warm and heartbreaking read. Cass’s delicate and precise writing style is evident, “The sun is setting and the shadows are leaking from every doorway, every window. I head out into the back yard, juggle a ball up onto my thighs the way my father showed me.”
“The Parents’ Guide to Ultra Sport Children” is a cautionary tale, perfect for modern society caught up in competitive sports for their children. It is a chilling account of children given pills to boost their athletic performance. “Ultrasport children with brain damage, Ultrasport children newly married, beating each other up, Ultrasport children, cut from their team, committing suicide, a heart bursting in a body grown too fast. . . . Your children, are mostly fine.”
“Jews in Sports” is a complex tale of religion, sports, and anti-Semitism. Cass weaves a tale of a boy growing up Jewish and his relationship with his father. Again beautiful prose elevates this story: “I went back to work, hoping, as we all hope at some point in our lives, that this one, selfless, earnest act would make up for, or even retract, a hundred other, selfish ones, that this would remake me into the kind of son I wanted to be, composed, appreciative, careful with my father’s love.”
Writing short stories is a skill; every word has to count. Cass does that beautifully with her lyrical writing. There is a definite sports related theme in each story but you don’t have to know or even enjoy sports to read them. A touch of mythology, sci-fi and supernatural adds to each story’s unique voice and structure.