Reviewing anthologies is usually pretty tricky. After all, you’ve got this whole spectrum of stories crammed into one volume, and without delving into every single one of them I’m supposed to give you an overview of what I thought? (It occurs to me that it might be interesting to have a segment dedicated to reviewing individual short stories. I’ll let that one simmer in the old mental Crock-Pot and get back to you on it.) But, Dan O’shea’s collection of short stories Old School doesn’t have this problem. It’s not that the stories are cookie cutter replicas of each other, but most all of them seem to share similar strengths and weaknesses. So lets discuss some of those shall we?
Lets start with the bad.
When reading through this collection I was reminded what a finicky animal the short story really is. O’shea displays a wonderful ability to set up a story that is both compelling and powerful. But in the endings he seems to stumble. Over and over he begins to weave a intricate tapestry of words only to leave it feeling half finished at the end, threads dangling, fabric unraveling. That isn’t to say that the stories didn’t have proper endings, but rather that many of them seemed somehow disconnected from the rest of the story, impressively explosive finishes without quite enough buildup to make them seem natural.
One gets the sense that he has become so excited by the progression of the story that he doesn’t give himself time to properly wrap it up. If the form of a story is, as Chuck Wendig suggests, analogous to the act of sex, then O’shea’s stories often have a small problem with premature ejaculation.
It’s tempting to chalk this up to the length of the stories, many of which are less than a thousand words in length, but the very point of writing flash fiction is to make the whole story fit within the boundaries set with no cutting of corners. It should not be surprising then to learn that O’shea freely admits in the collection’s afterword that he is fairly new to the short story form.
In spite of that criticism this is an impression collection of fiction. Why? Because in spite of the shortcomings of some of the stories O’shea’s writing is simply superb. There’s a kind of powerful effortlessness to the prose, a style that sinks its teeth into you and drags you into the story kicking and screaming.
Reading O’shea’s stories I was most reminded of Chuck Wendig’s style, but I’m not sure that’s an entirely fair way to put it. Because while Wendig weaves gritty, profanity-laden words with admirable dexterity, O’shea’s style is so perfect, so natural that it seems better to say that Wendig writes like O’shea rather than the other way around.
O’shea wears his style like a lucky shirt, a garment he is so accustomed to that it is almost a part of him. Even more remarkably, when he careens out of his comfort zone and affects an archaic style in “The Bard’s Confession on the Matter of the Despoilement of the Fishmonger’s Daughter” there is still something unbelievably natural about his prose.
Normally I’m not one to raise writing over the importance of story when judging a writer, but here I’m willing to make a bit of an exception. As I said before, O’shea admits he’s new to the art of the short story, and even as you read through the book, you can sense his form getting stronger as he becomes more familiar with the constrictions of the format.
With that in mind, I feel supremely confident in saying that this is a writer worth watching. A year or two down the road his star will be rising fast, which is why you’re going to need to jump on the bandwagon now.
Because years down the road you’ll be able to say, “I was there at the beginning. I was there when no one else had ever heard of Daniel B. O’shea. When he was just another nameless writer struggling to stay afloat on a sea of nameless writers, I was there.”
Do yourself a favor and pick up your digital copy of Old School today.