On Jim O’Loughlin’s ‘Dean Dean Dean Dean’
While O’Loughlin’s forte is humorous flash fiction, this story collection also brings the sad, poignant, and quietly reflective.
Fiction | Flash Fiction Collection
5” x 7”
Also available in eBook formats
Review Format: Paperback
Twelve Winters Press
Any writer who has read his material aloud has learned, often by excruciating trial and error, that some pieces are better suited for performance than others. In terms of prose subgenres, flash fiction presents itself as a natural choice for performative literature: short, punchy, to the point, often written with interesting POV choices, time-compressed to allow for full narrative effect. Flash fiction pieces instinctively tend toward a humorous slant, and many are constructed around a twist or a reveal at the end, much like a short comedic bit. Jim O’Loughlin embraces all the limitations/freeing features of this subgenre in his debut flash collection, Dean Dean Dean Dean, creating a fun, playful experience for any reader who’s a fan of humor writing.
“Travis is half a genius. The problem is the other half of him is an idiot. He’s always got a new scam for making money, and sometimes his plans are freaking brilliant [. …] But sometimes Travis’s ideas are flat out stupid, like the time he tried to turn aftershave into alcohol. The thing is that when Travis pitches me one of his plans, I can never tell at first whether it’s a great idea or a disaster.”
(from “Half a Genius”)
Many of the flash fiction stories contained within the collection possess an innate performative voice, which is understandable as many of them originated as pieces intended to be read aloud at the Final Thursday Reading series, a monthly event of which O’Loughlin is the director. The performance aspect of the pieces is something that O’Loughlin acknowledges, as the collection is in part dedicated to “everyone who braved the open mic.” O’Loughlin is an excellent performer with a strong grasp of cadence and rhythm, and while the stories do pop as they are silently ingested by the reader, the pieces take on an extra quality when the author speaks them aloud.
Because good humorous writing is so difficult to find, the funny stories are often what is highlighted when this collection is discussed: Two drivers at a four-way stop get increasing aggressive about insisting the other vehicle goes first. A spin-off of Iron Chef features two dishwashers cleaning up after the popular cooking show. A yoga instructor uses a session to vent about her frustrating wedding experience. O’Loughlin deeply commits to whatever form of humor he’s using, whether it’s observational or satire, Vonnegut-like gallows humor or deceptively playful humor in the tradition of Steve Martin. Although the majority of the pieces follow a build-up and then punchline-type structure, the type of humor itself is dynamic between stories.
“Calvin had once complained that there were not enough poets in the world. That, of course, was before he had started editing a literary magazine. […] [H]e had begun to wonder whether some sort of licensing system was needed, like the American Medical Association, only for poets. It would limit the number of people who could write poetry and would put restrictions on how many poems could be written in any given year about dead grandmothers, bad fathers, and waves crashing on beaches.”
(from “Simultaneous Submission”)
Although many of the pieces are funny, or walk the line between being funny and absolutely devastating, the emotional range of the collection itself is expansive. Many of the stories are sad, poignant, and/or quietly reflective: A college woman feels responsible for her dad moving out of the family home. A man flees a natural disaster and finds himself bringing along groceries instead of photo albums and family keepsakes. During a boring meeting, Philip creates a mental “People I Love” list and reflects on how much he loves his family even when they’re experiencing rough patches. The placement of these somber pieces within the collection feels very deliberate, as they are often sandwiched between humorous stories; the really hard-hitting emotional pieces never appear next to each other. This gives Dean Dean Dean Dean a sense of balance that is often lacking in short story collections, particularly collections that feature flash pieces. But, going back to the performative quality of the pieces, O’Loughlin understands the natural ebb and flow of a spoken reading, and the structure of the collection reflects this.
“You feel bad, but when you visit your dad at his new apartment on the other side of town, it never seems like the right time to say you are sorry. On one level, on a rational level, you realize that he didn’t move out because of what you said. He and your mom had been planning to separate for a while [. …] [B]ut you can’t help but feel responsible for his leaving.”
(from “The Time of My Life”)
All successful tragedies, even the Shakespearean ones, have moments of comic relief; inversely, the best comedies have moments of deep, seemingly irreparable despair. All full-length works, from short-story collections to feature films, require emotional contrast, which this collection certainly has. And although I appreciate the adept distribution of comedy and tragedy throughout the collection, my favorite piece is, of course, a funny one. In “The Nativity Set,” O’Loughlin channels the spirit of David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries to weave a story of pure suburban Christmas hell. The narrator is staying at his mother’s-in-law house for the holidays with his wife and three-year-old daughter Katelyn. Throughout the story, he attempts to wrangle Katelyn, whose newfound obsessions are playing with the antique nativity set and shouting, “Fucking A!” at inopportune moments. Because the story relies on a twist at the end, it would be unfair to spoil it with this review. Just know that this is one of the very best stories within the collection and that, when read with the right rhythm, it is explosively hilarious.
“I jumped up and saw Katelyn playing with my mother-in-law’s imported porcelain nativity set, the family heirloom that was the centerpiece for Christmas dinner. It was the worst thing in the house for Katelyn to touch, but there in the manger were the Virgin Mary and SpongeBob SquarePants gazing down on Baby Elmo in the crib.”
(from “The Nativity Set”)
Along with humor, Dean Dean Dean Dean is rich with pop culture and literary references. The title story is a play on Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 Major Major Major Major character, this time within an academic instead of military setting. O’Loughlin also undertakes writing a self-referential twenty-first-century revamp of The Metamorphosis entitled “The Meta-Metamorphosis.” From pop songs to Google search’s auto-correct feature, O’Loughlin utilizes dozens of facets of modern culture to construct his stories. Additionally, the author also plays with form, including stories written as announcements, satirical political press releases, and even a short sketch, all of which feel like they are naturally paired with the content and not like a gimmick. O’Loughlin even includes meta pieces that critique or at least question what it means to be an artist or a writer, particularly a writer working within short forms. This collection, despite being fewer than 150 pages, contains a vast reservoir of pieces that will appeal to any reader who is even remotely tuned in to contemporary Western culture.
“I’m writing about my future career because that is the assignment for this class. I have to write five hundred words about this topic because that is what you said, Mrs. Keiler. You should know that this is a hard assignment because five hundred words is a lot of words, and after I say I want to be a video game tester I won’t have anything left to say and so far that’s only seventy-five words.”
(from “My Future Career”)
Because of the clipped quality of these pieces, I naturally began to wonder what the story lines would look like had the author pushed past the ending he chose instead. I questioned whether or not the stories really ended there, or if they ended where they did just for the sake of the joke. With a few of the pieces, I got the impression that the twist at the end was presented as more important than the story itself, and I sometimes felt a little cheated, having invested myself wholly within the premise of the text. This is a reservation that other readers, particularly those more well-read in the flash fiction genre or in humor writing, might not share with me. And although I’m not left totally convinced by the structure of all the flash pieces within the collection, the fact remains that Dean Dean Dean Dean is a fast and enjoyable read that has a good balance of humorous and somber stories. This short collection of short-shorts is one that a reader can come back to again and again, always finding a new joke or reference that she didn’t notice the first time around.