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Tuesday, October 31, 2017




Meagan Cass
University of North Texas Press / 2017
Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction
ISBN 978-1574416947 / Paper / 192 Pages

ActivAmerica is a collection of short stories drawn from America's obsession with fitness, sports, and how we re-envision ourselves through sports. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, you are probably wrong. This book is a dynamic, funny, ironic, brilliant, and often biting commentary on how we live our lives through the perception of sports. This collection tackles more than just the concept of sports but reframes the American dream in tangents and connections that often feels at once hilarious and so ironic 

This selection of short stories meditates on the ideas around sports. And one thing that Cass does so well is that she is able to bring out the absurdity and the complexity of these ideas and bring that forward into a complex and often poignant vision of America in the face of changing times. Stories range from traditional sports and teams to a more visionary look at how people embrace things like Soloflex, ping-pong, and infatuations with famous athletes.

The story based on the collection title, ActivAmerica is a hilarious story based on securing a new health plan that requires the participants to run a mile every day. In some cases, the sport is a mere reflection of who we once were or who we never tried to become. Cass captures the absurdity of a moment and then turns it into a poignant and emotional connection to how we live our lives. Every line in her stories hold value, depth, and often humor. Nothing feels wasted in the prose. 

In the story Hawthorne Dynasty it reveals life in a typical girls’ soccer league, with a sassy coach and her all-star daughter Alana. The girls admire Alma and watch her become something beyond them. “When the starting whistle blew, she snapped her fingers, rocked onto the balls of her feet and didn’t stop moving until it was over…. She wore blonde hair loose, and on breakaways it would stream back behind her, catching the afternoon sun so it looked like her whole head was on fire.” It isn’t until later that we see Alana in a different life, away from her coach (her mother) and away from the life of suburbia. When we see her again later in life, Alana is a shadow of the woman who played soccer – free from clutches of her mother but haunted by the past. In Night Games, a group of late night, high school ruffians draw out a figure skater to join them in their secret hockey matches in the middle of the night. “Afterwards we sit and drink and the stink of our gear and our sweat rises around us. I breathe it in. It feels good to be a woman with a smell.” And the longing that these games, reminiscent and tribal would be lost in the next cycle of the season, it draws out change, doubt, and loss.

Some of the stories shift a bit from a traditional sports theme into ideas of what it means to be an American on the go. The Body in Space is a visionary story about a science teacher that is selected to go into the space program and the repercussions it has on his family. Ping-Pong, 12 Loring Place also intersects with competitive siblings staying clear of their fight parents. As they kids master the nuances of ping-pong “top spin and back spin, experimented with the flick, the block. … Our rallies grew longer, more heated, our bodies slamming into the gray walls as we struggled to return the push, the loop, the lob, the chop shot.” Through the winter, brother and sister continue the competitive ritual of playing in the basement. Finally, with the death of a marriage, and the coming of spring, the two must leave their bunker. “I was going to college and she was selling the house, buying a smaller one without a basement, without room for a ping-pong table. By then our paddles were barely functional, the stippled rubber worn away from the faces, the red and gold paint dulled. Before we left, Ari put them in one of our grandfather’s old cigar boxes, buried them in the backyard. A time capsule, we called it, as if some distant, future family would know to dig it up, would decipher the hieroglyphics off our nicknames, blurred with sweat. As if nothing was passing away.” In the end, it is more than the sports and activities that draw significance to these stories, it is a sense of measuring the world as it was and how it may become – and the forecast is often fraught with a myriad of emotions that Cass masterfully controls like musical notes on a staff.

Some of these stories reach into the absurd, but it isn’t without value. Cass has the ability to bring stories into focus using humor and satire to make even strange stories build with meaning and emotion. These stories were made for workshop dissection and discussions. Evocative and meaningful, Cass continues to innovate her own voice and style with every new idea and concept in this collection. These stories are not only entertaining and deeply poignant, but she innovates the push and pull that haunts what it means to be an American. Every story is layered in a complex tumult of emotions, action, and vision. Her voice, character, and mastery of the form creates brilliant opportunities to examine more than just themes on sports, but delves deeper into compelling elements of the American dream; to be competitive, physical, aggressive, and beautiful at the cost of our hopes, guilt, longing, and loss. This collection won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.