Forget the circus because the balancing act Steve Almond performs in this novel, “All the Secrets of the World,” would put tightrope walkers to shame.
As a veteran of the nonfiction scene, it’s perhaps no surprise that a writer who once published a best-selling book about being obsessed with candy (“Candyfreak”) would populate his first full-length foray into fiction with a cast of characters that includes an elusive scorpion biologist, a well-mustachioed detective and first lady Nancy Reagan’s personal astrologer. Known to some for his work from him as a co-host on the “Dear Sugars” podcast, Almond manages to channel the empathy intrinsic to that long-running advice program into the characters that make this novel a breathtaking success.
Set in Sacramento circa 1981, “All the Secrets of the World” details the unthinkable consequences that arise when two teenage girls from very different backgrounds are forced together for a school science project. If that premise sounds comical, the results are not, although Almond’s natural flair for humor thankfully often pokes through.
For those who recall Colum McCann’s brilliant “Let the Great World Spin,” a similar (albeit entirely original) approach and payoff are employed. Whereas McCann built a fictional ensemble cast around the real-life exploits of acrobat Philippe Petit, Almond channels the inner monologue of Reagan, who dwells on the recent assassination attempt of her husband as she frets over crime headlines and consults an astrologer for advice on what actions to take. Almond then contrasts those imagined forays into the former first lady’s mind with another character’s harrowing journey into the heart of America’s criminal justice system, offering one of many ways in which his novel rightfully earns its lofty title.
At times a race-to-the-finish mystery, this book can also rightly be categorized as a searing meditation on the multigenerational traumas endured by a family of undocumented immigrants. And yet, despite boasting a veritable universe of story lines, “All the Secrets of the World” impressively manages to sew all its loose threads back together before the final page arrives.
Encompassing everything from polygamist Mormon cults to blood forensics, Almond’s novel also manages to pay homage to a few stretches of California that are often left in the literary dust. Set largely in Sacramento as well as Fresno, these familiar geographies eventually give way to their more primordial counterparts as a search for answers regarding a missing scientist sends a pair of unlikely partners down to the Salton Sea in Southern California and into the desolation beyond.
This area is also the perfect place for scorpions, as we learn, to be seen by means of bioluminescence. The idea of shining a light to see things as they appear in the dark is one that Almond explores in depth, be it the unseen labor of immigrant custodians, the carnality of lust that lives in each of us or the literal stars that speckle the night sky. It is a dazzling magic trick that explains why the author reportedly took 30 years to complete the manuscript. Rarely does such prolonged attention merit better results. In the case of “All the Secrets of the World,” the wait, it turns out, has been entirely worth it.
All the Secrets of the World
By Steve Almond
(Zando; 416 pages; $28)
Book Passage presents Steve Almond with Tom Barbash and Karen Lynch: In person. 1 p.m. Sunday, April 24. Free. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 415-927-0960. bookpassage.com
Books Inc. presents Steve Almond: In person. 5 p.m. Sunday, April 24. Free. Books Inc., 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto. 650-321-0600. www.booksinc.net