Old School, the first compilation of short fiction by writer Dan O’Shea, is filled to the brim with pieces that are as hard hitting and visceral as they come. As I read through the book I was so immersed in the stories, so involved with the characters, that a few times the events on the page actually prompted a physical reaction. My brain has been awash in violence and suspense for most of my life, thanks to movies and video games, and I thought I was inured to it all. Turns out I’m not. O’Shea manages to hone his fiction into a point sharp enough to break through the wall of desensitization and make the reader squirm.
Dan O’Shea is one of the few writers who can pull you into the action and make you sympathize with the protagonist, even with stories that are almost too petite to be properly called shorts. He accomplishes this by presenting characters that are real and wholly believable. They are people, like many people you know or have heard of, with problems, flaws, weaknesses. Many of them feel trapped, and they are looking for ways out. Some are just trying to get by, make it from day to day, living a life that seems more like hell. That seems to be the central premise of Old School; the idea that hard boiled detectives and kung fu body builders aren’t the only possible subjects of crime fiction, and that narratives with real and believable characters are more compelling.
All of the main characters in this collection, except for a few outliers, are at least in their middle ages. Some are older than that, well into their golden years, even on the brink of death by old-age. They all have something to lose, something to fight for. You may not think that a diaper wearing nursing home resident makes a compelling hero, but if you give this collection a chance, O’Shea will prove you wrong. Having worked in a nursing home at one time in my life, Lou DeGatano, the protagonist of “Sheepshank,” reminds me vividly of several people that I know. He seems more real to me than any CIA super spy or genetically engineered soldier ever could. My heart was pounding as I followed his painful efforts to wrap up a lifelong obsession and make peace with himself before his inevitable death. All of the pieces in this collection are just as gripping.
In terms of style, O’Shea is a gifted artist. He writes in the sparse and clipped prose that is normally associated with the “hard boiled” strand of crime fiction, and the stories all move at a brisk pace. I found myself wishing for more visual descriptions at times, and a few of his experiments with form – writing in the present tense and second person perspective – felt awkward to me. Despite those hiccups, and despite the fact that I’m not personally a fan of crime fiction, I found that the vividly real protagonists made it work.
The book could use a second look from an editor, because there are a (very) few rough patches that were missed the first time around, but they are infrequent and forgivable, given the overall quality of the collection. The prose flows well, and the length of the pieces make this book very readable and perfect for when you want a shot of suspense in a limited amount of time. I heartily recommend this read, especially given the price tag. I enjoyed this collection of shorts just as much as the last Stephen King collection I bought, and it was a sixth of the price.