It’s hard to pin down the specific kind of placelessness that pervades Daniel Mueller’s new fiction collection, Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey. Each story has a distinct setting: Minneapolis, Dallas, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Yellowstone National Park. But the collection overall has an uncannily homogenous feel. It’s full of objects and landmarks—the A-One Apartments, a rusty water tower out in a field, a McDonalds just off the interstate—that could be anywhere. Jack, the young gay narrator of “Say Anything and Everything,” one of the collection’s best stories, comes of age at Iroquois Trail, “a suburban subdivision that catered to upwardly mobile, two-income families like [his] own.” I know that subdivision. There’s probably an Iroquois Trail outside every major city in America, acres of flattened land parceled and marketed for their “International Style Homes and large wooded lots.” These places are rootless, empty signifiers of home—everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Mueller’s America is a country we know well, a place tirelessly working to cultivate normalcy through repetition and stoic homogeneity. It’s also a country that’s particularly ill equipped and unwilling to talk openly about its own failings and histories of violence, though they certainly exist. Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey fixes an unwavering eye on these dark, unspoken spaces thrumming beneath the flattened landscape. Mueller’s characters include former heroin addicts, children with physical defects, bulimics, rape victims, and serial killers. It’s a collection about shame and the desperate loneliness marking so much of modern American life, those hidden pockets of secret material that radiate outward regardless of how deeply we try to bury them.
Often in these stories the secrets are sexual. More than once Mueller hones in on moments of adolescent intimacy that mix love, sex, curiosity, schoolyard power dynamics, and violence. In “I Killed It, You Cook It,” Howard, the young narrator, is coerced into playing wife to Flaaten, a neighborhood sociopath who spends his free time hurling bags of shit at police cars. The twenty-year old narrator of “I’m OK, You’re OK” hitches a ride to Alaska and is picked up by a clown who asks him for a blowjob in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. In “Say Anything and Everything,” Jack’s first love is Lucas Vite, the school’s JV quarterback. Their secret sexual encounters vacillate uneasily between intimacy and physical violence; at one point, heartbroken and betrayed, Jack finds himself “praying every moment for a blow to the ribs or back of the head.”
This is intimacy by trial and error. Mueller’s young characters often find themselves ushered into adult life without fully understanding what’s happening to them. And in these scenes the writing is frank and brutal, which doesn’t always make for easy reading. But these difficult moments are always marked by Mueller’s deep care and sympathy as a writer. He’s fully attuned to the ways these intimate, terrifying episodes overwhelm, how they happen to us, and the strange way they mix ecstasy, guilt, and fear, in ways we might feel, but that we can’t necessarily name.
In coupling the generic flatness of suburban America with these dark and violent episodes lurking beneath it, Mueller isn’t just drawing our attention to the hypocritical rot behind the white picket fence. Implicit in these characters’ attempts to cope with their experiences is their more abstract and unspoken battle with the largely indifferent cultural landscape they live in. Having undergone very real trauma, Mueller’s characters are looking for some way to specify the small section of the universe they inhabit, to mark it as something unique and worthy of attention. What they want is to not be forgotten, to feel anchored in history, some sign that their suburban backyard is different from the millions of other suburban backyards surrounding it.
Any geographical or emotional anchor these characters are after in these stories ultimately proves elusive though. We come to find out that all the houses in Iroquois Trail, which were designed by Jack’s father, have deep structural failings. Another contractor has moved in to the neighborhood and he tells Jack, “In twenty years, every one of your father’s homes will have been torn down and in its place will stand one of mine.” Subdivisions like Iroquois Trail are easy to come by. So are the histories that take place within them. As the characters in these stories come to a deeper understanding of the expendable quality of their own suffering, their attempts to leave a mark on a faceless landscape become more and more desperate. They end up fundamentally disassociated and alienated from the world they live in; as Mueller notes about one character, it’s a split life “in which he is of the world but hardly in it at all.”
The moments of disassociation that run through this deeply felt collection seem particularly contemporary because they bring to mind the self-consciousness and spectatorship that defines so much of modern American life. Mueller’s characters aren’t narcissists, though they have an understandable desire to be acknowledged by someone else, to hear another person utter their name. Something sad and recognizable lurks in that impulse. Online, we glibly tell one another “Pics or it didn’t happen,” unaware of that cliché’s deep ontological implications, the way it links our existence with our never-ending performance of that existence. At a time when it’s difficult to talk about how disconnected we might feel, Mueller’s fiction highlights the unspoken and intense suffering and loneliness we often have to endure alone. It’s a suffering the world rarely recognizes, but one that endlessly echoes within each of us, no matter how many subdivisions we might raze and rebuild.