“We’re lying in the middle of a cracked country road, fireflies blinking a message we’re too human to understand,” says the speaker in the title story from Tommy Dean’s new flash collection, Hollows. What that leads to is a one-sided colloquy between two adolescent boys, where “The silence between us gathers like old men at the hardware store.” The ending, an attempt at escape from a world of failed starts and stops, is enough to rock you backwards.
Billed as “flash / stories” because some are too long to qualify as miniatures, the forty-five narratives often dwell on unsolved dilemmas and damaged relationships, where “I love you” is a problematic statement. Power imbalances between parents and children, between lover and beloved, make for conflict and uneasy resolution. One sequence, “The Bridge,” spans four parts and ends with a lonely leap into oblivion. Dean doesn’t flinch from gritty events and the emotions they spur.*
The landscape Dean’s people inhabit is ramshackle and small-town, as in the opening story, “Here,” where, as Gertrude Stein quipped, “there is no there there.” Vibes from big-city locales are easy, but art is representation, and the squeak from a porch swing or the buzzing lights from a trailer park can also indicate a lot. They’re a reminder of William Carlos Williams’s observation “No ideas but in things.”
In some instances, even the titles arrest the eye: “A Pondering of Velocity When You’re Too Scared to Move” or “Righteous, Dapper, Famous,” which almost sounds like a Barry Hannah outtake. But these aren’t stories where the openings have to do all the work. They’re relationship pieces that depend on characters and how they collide with each other, the coming together and the falling away. The hurt, angry voice in “Always the Alpha” story says a lot about fathers and sons, an angle that Dean returns to again and again. Another recurrent theme is children adrift, abandoned, or dead, and the adults who mourn them in their own ways. Collateral damage is inevitable, as in lines like “Though she’s young, there are lines on her face grooved into the skin like shattered glass.”
Dean, who’s published two previous collections, Special like the People on TV and Covenants, seems equally at home writing stories with the tight scope of prose poems and narratives with room to spare. Hollows contains echoes of Len Kuntz, Kathy Fish, and Meg Pokrass (the epigraph to “An Approximation of Melody” refers to her “Love Street Blues”). Yet Dean’s stories are quite recognizable all on their own. They involve intimacy, for lack of a more precise destination, and the impediments to getting there.
In short (the only kind of book review we feature), Dean has carved for himself a spot in the flash firmament. We look forward to seeing where he goes next.
* Full disclosure: Dean published “Rock, Paper, Scissors” in Vestal Review a few years ago, the story that forms Part 1 of “The Bridge.” It was a smart pick on our part.