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Short Story Collection

By Timothy O’Leary

252 pp. Unsolicited Press. $16.99.

In “Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face,” Timothy O’Leary explores the realities of the present-world through a satirical lens, yet often revolves around stereotypical characterization and writing too lacking in sub-text. While O’Leary combines historical relevance with absurd humor to push the extent of satire to the reader, often the writing falters at each stories’ end. Disappointingly, while he writes in “Bouncing,” “expect the unexpected”, often the stories fail to transcend this un-expectancy. The writing throughout, however, remains admirable for the entertainment and social commentary the collection provides.

O’Leary balances satirizing the common modern man (i.e. one man explores the dangerous effects of online dating) as well as satirizing the government and people who do or have held political power (i.e. Hitler may find his “Thousand Year Reich”). O’Leary’s stories revolve around themes of technology, immigration, consumerism and “the American dream”, and more technology. (By diving into “Dick Cheney,” one is simultaneously still in the real world – surrounded by the consistent, pervasive exposure to the digital and technological.)

In an interview with The Sweetest Debut, O’Leary describes the inspiration for much of his stories as routed in seemingly average real life events: fly fishing, an NPR report, visiting a Costco in Billings, Montana, and passing by a homeless man who lives under a bridge near O’Leary’s home. The takeaway: O’Leary combines real life with absurdity and the product is well informed, relevant fiction. “Dick Cheney” doesn’t serve as a reader’s escape from reality; rather, each story is fully grounded in some element of the present world. This quality of the writing elicits the most enjoyable aspect of the fiction – O’Leary’s ability to bring our attention to the social issues around us.

Less enjoyable is the clear demographic to which this collection is aimed toward. As O’Leary says in his interview with The Sweetest Debut, these stories are “about men in transition. Lonely men, funny men, naked men punching vending machine buttons with their penises, men in love, homeless men, drunk men” etc. The overall impact seems to collate into one kind of male character, despite the collection’s eighteen stories. The consistent raunchy humor displayed by the consistent Unhappy-Man-Revels-in-His-Foulness tends to take a slight toll on the reader. While O’Leary writes in “Regarding Your Ex Wife,” “You know, you might be underestimating your true shittiness”, the author is certainly not consciously underestimating that aspect of his characters. Readers will easily enjoy the larger themes throughout in connection to the present world and O’Leary’s satirical entertainment, but find themselves disappointed in the lack of variety in humor, character, and sub-text.

While clever elements pervade much of “Dick Cheney,” the second story, “First Kill,” strongly lacks the same attention. “First Kill” centers around an abusive, alcoholic father who takes his son on his first hunting trip to “finally become a man”. In working with such a familiar plot, the writing must offer the reader something new. The piece calls to mind Tobias Wolff’s “Hunters in the Snow”, which offers its readers an incredibly unsettling and unexpected take on a much similar plot. Wolff gives his characters depth, offers intricate characterization through dialogue, and writes unexpected details and actions. O’Leary’s “First Kill” relies on flat characters the reader has seen before: “Justin feared the only one in his family more mentally deficient than his father was dear old mom, her face molded in a strange vacant smile when she watched her husband toss him around. Shy and birdlike, she was ill-equipped for parenting”. Similar clichés don’t pervade this collection, which makes this story noticeably disappointing. The ending is the most problematic, characteristic of the lack of sub-text many of these stories portray. O’Leary explicitly addresses the reader’s expectation for the next action, backs away from this to offer something unexpected, and then proceeds to carry out what the reader saw coming all along.

“Midnight Elvis,” a shorter piece following a son who witnesses what his father does in secrecy, is interesting and entertaining throughout, but again portrays a faltering in the ending. Just when the reader thinks a piece will only continue to get more interesting, the end writing remains too on-the-nose and often turns to O’Leary overwriting the comedic, forcing a comedic ending for no purposeful reason. Perhaps O’Leary relies too much on humor to leave his pieces in the comfortably unsettling space a reader expects. “Bouncing,” a great example of unexpected plot twists, remains overwritten in the ending with that on-the-nose writing, “expect the unexpected”.

The disappointments of the collection heavily contend with the stories’ important and entertaining themes – such as technology – which readers see in “Fake Girlfriend” and “Impala”. O’Leary details the nightmares that technology may bring about and the ways in which the modern world falls in love. He also details the incredible possibilities that technology makes possible. This balance offers genuine insight to our world – only sprinkled throughout with slight disappointment.

“Dick Cheney” is filled with excellent, biting social commentary, finding lines such as, “I smelled iron, unsure if it’s blood or just the normal odor of a government rig,” “He envisioned sitting in an Applebee’s with his wife and kids, living the American dream,” and “you can sleep until afternoon, drink and smoke pot during working hours, and discuss masturbating without fear of a lawsuit. Kind of like being a Congressman”. However, this commentary isn’t the focal point of the collection, rather, the stories surround men in pain – who happen to morph into the same character by the end of the pages.

“Dick Cheney” shows men who piss in brownies, purposely tear apart the marriages of strangers, spend twenty-five pages in conflict “resolved” in sniffing a woman’s g-string, and who rape Barbie dolls. These are the men in pain at the center of O’Leary’s collection. Admirable for its entertaining historical relevance, “Dick Cheney” falls short in variety and creation.