Some of my most memorable experiences of art are those over which I pre-rolled my eyes at the audacity. Black Watch, the play about a 2004 Scottish Army regiment’s eye view of the war in Iraq, crunched my ribs with its earned emotion. Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann’s 2006 braided novel, powerfully evoked the Twin Towers with an arc of tightrope artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 walk between the two. The book floated with a poetic touch.
Like these expertly harnessed works, “Hagar’s Sons” is a deeply ambitious short story. The narrative hinges on a marriage forced by pregnancy. A discontent business analyst. A dead father. A surprise trip to Dubai. A sheik. A 9/11 conspiracy. It’s a high thread count story, but writer Steve Almond is a very skillful wordsmith.
“The call startled him.”
Almond’s clean opening calibrates the reader to a tension that crackles throughout. The story is a surreal portrayal of business analyst Cohen, who we follow from New York to Dubai after he is mysteriously requested to meet with a sheik. Things unravel from there as Cohen is thrust into a high-stakes world of camel racing and helipad tennis matches and man-made islands. He’s the classic ordinary man dropped into an extraordinary situation. What does this über wealthy and powerful sheik want with Cohen? We must know.
Amidst the zany and engaging plot, Almond throws us language M&M’s. How did Cohen’s boss dress? “[T]he suit collar bit into his jowls.” How did his wife Chantal wear her rouge? “Glamorously bruised.” What did the hotel’s hospitality prostitute look like? “Her body, backlit by the TV, was a brutal sculpture. Her scapulae curved like dark wings.”
Almond’s ambitious subjects are anchored by skillful, nuanced language. The balloon doesn’t float away when tethered to specificity. In this way, Almond achieves the ultimate with “Hagar’s Sons”: the writing matches the pace of its subject. In a lesser execution, the takeaway would be a conclusion about something. An answer. Instead, the reader is rewarded with the memory of the world and of the characters. And, as with all sophisticated work, we are left with questions.
To enjoy the story its entirety, read “Hagar’s Sons” in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.