Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey
Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey pulls together eleven new short stories by Daniel Mueller, whose previous collection, How Animals Mate, was published in 1999. From the suburbs of Minneapolis to the wilderness of Montana, the stories largely center on characters who are facing some kind of transition: dealing with recently-separated parents, recently dead parents, troubled relationships, and uncertain futures. The characters are quirky, complex, not always likeable, but above all deeply human.
The collection opens with “I Killed It, You Cook It,” a dark suburban tale of adolescence that sets the tone for the rest of the collection. The first person narrator, Howard, reflects back on his move away from his father with his mother and sister to a new town, the summer before sixth grade. There he develops a friendship with a neighbor whom he looked up to, Flaaten, but who in hindsight was not very enviable: “Flaaten was likely a sociopath, I think now, limited in his capacity to experience feelings, others’ and his own. But because I had yet to make any other friends in Edina, I assumed he was typical of boys my age there.” By and large the boys do typical suburban youth things: they shoplift, smoke cigarettes, steal items from other people’s yards, and throw things––including a bag of urine and excrement––at passing cars. But Flaaten takes it past the point of usual hijinks when he kills animals. Ultimately, the narrator begins to hate his new friend, and by the story’s end, with Howard’s coldness towards the unlucky fate of his friend, the observation that Flaaten was likely a sociopath due to his limited capacity to experience feelings takes an ironic turn.
Despite the dark nature of “I Killed It, You Cook It,” Mueller is able to work humor in during a scene at dinner with the narrator’s family, expertly capturing the complexity of a young boy facing big changes. And it is this ability to show the complexity of people that shines throughout the collection. Among unexpected plot twists and strange details, it is the characters who stand out and stay with the reader after the book is closed. In “High Art and Low,” Tabitha, a college graduate and classically trained dancer, returns to visit her sister, Sam, a high school dropout turned stripper who, according to Tabitha, never had a chance out after their parents death. While arguing with her sister regarding her line of work, Tabitha seems to reach a new understanding, and instead of continuing the argument, she decides to teach her sister a fouette. In “Red Cinquefoil,” a hard-drinking and gambling man in his seventies who worked at a nuclear test site carries “sludge,” glass formed from molten rock from the nuclear tests, around with him for luck, though he admits his luck isn’t that good. He credits the sludge and radiation to his long life, though the realities of the radiation exist in daughters, both of whom had troubles conceiving, one never could have kids, the other just gave birth to an 11-fingered baby.
“Red Cinquefoil” also demonstrates the masterful ways Mueller can turn a sentence. In the opening paragraph, the narrator is playing nickel slots and praying to Saint Anthony:
“I admitted I was a weak but far from humble vessel who was susceptible to vices of many varieties, and that for these and other failings I hadn’t been the clean instrument for magnanimous acts God, if He existed, had no doubt hoped for when He created me, and just as I was about to list the changes I, at seventy-one, was prepared to make on His––which is to say, if he were inclined, in His most holy of hearts, to care, even an ounce––behalf, the slot machine lit up from within and began to quake.”
Throughout the book, the writing is smart, clear, and demonstrates the author’s strong eye for details. However, the collection is not without its weaknesses. In some of the stories there is a heavy-handedness when it comes to pushing through the message Mueller is trying to convey, like in “Spoils,” where the final paragraphs seem to unnecessarily over explain.
Additionally, many of the stories use flashbacks as a narrative device, and quite often they do so successfully, but in some instances the transitions from past to present can be jarring. “Say Anything and Everything,” the story from which the collection’s title comes, successfully moves in time as the narrator, Jack, juxtaposes his childhood homosexuality with his later straight marriage. In the flashbacks, the narrator ranges from ages 12 to 16, and Mueller’s apt depictions of this age group are another strength of the collection, which features a number of children and teenagers throughout. The story also effectively captures the era, with its new developments of subdivisions set among the political background of the McGovern – Nixon election, along with the obsession of Hubert Humphrey:
“Nights I dreamed of Hubert Humphrey. Sometimes we hunted pheasants, striding two abreast through waist-high cornstalks with our shotguns. Sometimes we trolled for walleyes, he with a sure hand on the throttle of a puttering outboard, I in the bow with my fishing rod extended over whitecaps. Once we barbecued baby back ribs on a backyard grill, both of us in chef’s hats and checkered aprons. Never had I done any of these things, nor had I any desire to, yet I awoke from each in a bubble of warmth, as if the shared activity had provided a momentary reprieve from a life not yet worth living.”
In addition to meeting Hubert Humphrey twice, the narrator also has an affair with Gerald Ford, not the President, but instead his father’s business rival.
Other highlights of the collection include “Tina Louise,” in which a recovering heroin addict slowly readapts to clean living through shared custody of a variety of lizards, frogs, iguanas, snakes, and eventually a baby, all named Tina Louise; “Huntsville Rodeo, 1968,” which comes from the perspective of a snake-obsessed seven-year-old boy; and “Pleased to Meet Me,” in which a homicide detective finds new love(s) after the disappearance of his daughter.
Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey is a strong collection that captures slices of Americana, from its subdivisions and trails, to its skinny jeans, heroin addicts, and orgy-having hippies. The captivating stories capture people at crossroads, who may or may not make the best choices but who, nevertheless, continue on.
Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey is available through Outpost19.