Dan Mueller’s collection of stories, Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey, presents an unforgettable cast of damaged characters who grope to reconstruct and make sense of their worlds. We relate to these people through shared humanity, recognizing, perhaps against our will, something of ourselves in each of them.
Among these tortured souls and “garden-variety” goof ups we find a boy at puberty’s threshold, seeking acceptance through a dangerous friendship that will scar him for life; a sexually adventurous and gifted adolescent, fascinated with politics, whose struggles with accepting himself continue into adulthood, largely as a result of his father’s rejection; a pair of young-adult sisters who develop unconventional mechanisms for coping with the protracted illness and death of their parents; a smart but miserable couple expecting a child, who unwittingly place their relationship of ten years in the crucible of a wedding party whose attendees have prospered through unsavory connections; a detective who, through misplaced motives and affections, struggles to construct a life after the unsolved disappearance of his preteen daughter; a seven-year-old boy, fascinated with snakes, whose innocence is destroyed when he witnesses a horrific rodeo accident and the disappointing behavior of his philandering father; a jaded professor whose fiancé, a beautiful rape victim, mysteriously attracts men, forcing him to realize that he “loved something in her” that he never wanted to see in his daughter; a college dropout hiking in Yellowstone—fantasizing and making up stories to project a free-spirited lifestyle—who gets more than he bargained for after hooking up with a couple whose marriage is on the brink of disaster.
The strongest piece, “I’m OK, You’re OK,” originally published in The Missouri Review, is more memoir than fiction. In it, Mueller places himself in the role of damaged protagonist, trying to construct a life from broken fragments. Ironically it takes the memory of a perverted clown in a Plymouth station wagon to establish the perspective through which Mueller can appreciate the gifts accrued through fearless contemplation of failures and mistakes. During a birthday party for his five-year-old daughter—thirty years after Mueller’s encounter with the clown—his father says, “That day you left us to hitchhike to Alaska, surely you couldn’t have imagined that one day all of this would be yours.” His father was referring to the life Mueller had “cobbled together out of nothing more than a desire to write.” For Mueller to write is to give of himself, buried chunks that are exhumed through blood and pain, the sharing of which gives life to stories that evoke a full range of emotion.
OMG! we think from the safety of our reading chairs. Saddened and disturbed, we indulge ourselves in cathartic laughter, chuckling as Mueller peels back layer after layer of masked-over pain to reveal hardened kernels of humanity, waiting for grace and receiving it in surprising ways. The elegant prose that constitutes these gems crackles with dark humor, witty dialogue, and irony. Dan Mueller, who also penned the prize-winning collection, How Animals Mate, has provided an ambitious collection that forces us to ask difficult questions about our own lives, a process that just might move us closer to acceptance of ourselves and others.