Tommy Dean’s debut chapbook, Special Like the People on TV, collects eight stories exploring the side-streets, parking lots, and smoldering desires of suburban domestics. Although this collection was released in late 2014, it’s new to me.
It kicks off with “Baby, Alone,” where an everyday wait in the car takes a left turn for a poor wife, who finds herself in the unwelcome position of shopping for a home pregnancy test. She’s given up on becoming pregnant, but her husband insists on testing. The wife decides not to go with him into the drugstore, and while she sits and waits, she notices a baby alone in a car one aisle over. It’s cold out, and fate has presented her with a child that might need saving. She investigates, ruminates. In the ensuing confrontation between the childless narrator and the harried mother, the narrator is dared to call the authorities, and does not.
This segues to the title story, where the spouse of an alcoholic leaves her brood of children in the car to purchase liquor. Next up: the very short “A Heavy Smell of Gas,” where once again the narrator is sitting in a parked car, but with a purpose. The first two narrators wait, kill time while someone runs an errand, but this narrator is on a mission to burn down his childhood home.
“In the gentle breeze he thinks he can discern the light smell of the lilac taking over, for just an instant, the heavy smell of gas.”
The theme of childlessness re-occurs throughout the collection. In “Compatible,” presented is a glimpse of a couple who, after years of putting off having a child with the classic excuses of “enjoying the marriage,” getting “a raise,” or acquiring “the perfect house,” find that they cannot conceive. This is followed by the tale of a teen who gets pregnant, and receives mixed messages — big ouch when the teen father’s family attorney asks her “Just what are your plans…?” as the termination of a life enters the conversation. This, in turn, is followed by a tale about the one that got away, in “Parking.”
The penultimate story in the collection, “The Weight of the Moon,” is the odd man out. While the preceding stories seemed united by a theme of belonging and longing, this one was more pecuniary in nature, although it does involve a strong-arm robber waiting to spring on his victim from a parked car.
The final story in the collection, “Arriving,” is my favorite of them all. It’s a quiet exchange, lots of subtext, between a husband and wife who cannot conceive for medical reasons. They are sitting on their porch in the dark, cold, snowy evening. The neighbor’s children have built a snowman family across the street, and in a very satisfying moment, the husband wrecks the snow-children.
“He turned his back on the mess and walked away, knowing that his footprints would harden overnight.”
I think the drawback to a very small collection like this is that there is less depth plumbed in the exploration of a theme. Some elements, the waiting in cars for instance, might come off as repetitive tropes instead of deepening echoes to some readers. It seems to me this type of a chapbook would lend itself very well to either a One-Story-style single story, poetry, or a micro-prose collection. Dean’s two longer stories, although carefully ordered and beautifully written, take up real estate I’d have rather have been filled with more micro prose offering additional facets to the themes of procreation and settling. But that’s me: I’m a compression connoisseur of sorts.
Red Bird Chapbooks are limited run (Dean’s collection is an edition of 100), and they are keepsakes. This is a 40-page, hand-sewn booklet, with Garamond text on smooth, archival white paper. The tactile pleasure of its silken paper adds to the pleasure of these stories. If you’ve never held one in your hands, then click on over and support a small press by purchasing a copy of your own!
Full disclosure/author-reviewer connection: I had met Dean at AWP 2017 in Washington, DC. He and I, Maureen Langloss, and Lori Sambol Brody all sat together at the Split Lip Magazine and Sundog Lit reading, “Fighting Words,” and we got to talking about publications. I asked Tommy for a review copy of his book for two reasons. 1) He’s a super nice person and I wanted to read more of his work, 2) I’m always curious to see and hold a copy of a small press product, and Redbird interested me. By the way, just two months later, Maureen would become Fiction Editor at Split Lip, where Tommy and Lori are now both reading! So if you like this collection, you should definitely send things SLP’s way!
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars. I think writers of small collections of flash prose would love to study this work.