'Dick Cheney shot me in the face*'

"Dick Cheney shot me in the face* and other tales of men in pain"

By Timothy O’Leary

The title of Timothy O’Leary’s new collection, "Dick Cheney shot me in the face* and other tales of men in pain," captures the spirit of these stories. Offering a generous helping of dark ironic humor, O’Leary delves into his protagonists’ psychological shadows. The plots are sometimes extravagant, but the characters are generally ordinary people whose lives, like everyone’s, sometimes turn in unexpected ways.

The most convincing stories, such as “One Star” and “Fake Girlfriend,” reveal unforeseen consequences of a character’s actions through risky but effective twists. In the former story, for example, the point of view unexpectedly shifts from that of a frustrated diner who posts a patently unfair restaurant review to focus on the hard-working proprietor of the establishment. In the latter tale, a lonely everyman finds himself trapped in a fictional relationship he created.

The collection is fast-paced and efficiently rendered. In a compact 252 pages, O’Leary presents 18 stories, the majority of them fully developed. Though the book could use another close round of copy editing, the writing is engaging and crisp. Many of the stories have appeared in periodicals, but reading them together reveals the author’s characteristic subject matter, as well as his distinctive stylistic quirks, including at least one “in-joke,” with a character from one story referenced in another. As the title indicates, the point of view is invariably male.

O’Leary was born in Billings and lives part time in the Pacific Northwest, and Montana and Oregon form the backdrops for most of these tales. The stories are set in contemporary times, with a rare exception being O’Leary’s foray into early 20th-century Red Lodge in “The Purification.” O’Leary’s West is occasionally glitzy but often seedy, a more humorous but equally bleak version of the world of Richard Ford’s "Rock Springs." Even “Bouncing,” with its Las Vegas aura of high-roller gambling and international wheeling and dealing, is told from the point of view of a skilled and well-trained, but ultimately working-class, casino bouncer.

O’Leary’s confident glibness reflects his career as a television and advertising writer. According to his press biography, he has won “over 100 awards for advertising/television creativity.” Not surprisingly given his background, he peppers stories with pop culture references and is not averse to dropping brand names. Occasionally, as in the title story, O’Leary’s plots seem gimmicky, and in some cases, such as in “The Big Chocolate Whizzle” and “Midnight Elvis,” the humor descends to an adolescent level. The most troubling aspect of the collection is its tendency to hug the boundary between evoking genuine “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” empathy for marginalized characters and exploiting the sensationalist aspects of lives gone out of control.

Mostly, though, O’Leary’s deft, even dazzling, handling of narrative momentum makes for a good read, and the collection amply illustrates the valuable insight that apparently ordinary circumstances can quickly change in uncomfortable, bewildering ways.

Bernie Quetchenbach is a professor of English at Montana State University Billings.

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