Left field. What is it that is so odd about left field? Where is left field? Are we talking baseball or farm? Magnetic or wildflower? There are myriad fields. Orthodontics is a field of dentistry. Of course if something comes out of left field, there has to be at least two fields. Or is the left field the one that’s still there after the other field is gone? Or has the other field “left,” while one (or more) remains? Ach! I’m giving myself a headache in my left brain. And I’m not making my point.
Sometimes I read for enjoyment, sometimes I read for enlightenment, and sometimes I read because I am coerced. Some books are enjoyable, some are enlightening, and some are…well, some are ones you don’t read unless forced (although forced reading is more likely to take the form of contracts, manuals, and church bulletins). Once in a while, I would like to be amused.
(Aha! This is where you thought the review would begin, didn’t you?) Defining amusement is not the easiest task. Oh, the word “amusement” is easily defined, but what amuses one person leaves another bored or, more aptly, unamused. For example, if my washing machine oversuds and overflows, I think it’s amusing; the person who has to clean the mess does not. For me, amusement is not laugh out loud, pain in the side, falling on the floor, gasping for breath hilarity. It’s more a smile and a quiet laugh. It’s found way out in left field.
Andy Rooney can be amusing. Dave Barry is amusing. Erma Bombeck was amusing. Carrot Top is not (he can be funny, though). Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (Bringing up Baby) were both amusing; Jim Carey, Pauly Shore, and Adam Sandler are not. The broader, more obvious, or more clichéd the humor, the less likely it is to be amusing. It may be hilariously funny, but not amusing by my standards.
Humorists tend to be amusing, as opposed to comedians who tend to (try to) be funny. My favorite humorist is Jean Shepherd (A Christmas Story; Ollie Hoopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss; Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories). In the 1970s, Shepherd had an evening radio show in which he would spin out yarns from his past, all of which were amusing, then progressed to hilarious. Jean Shepherd’s storytelling style put all other storytellers to shame. In both his written works, adaptations of his work, and his radio shows, he never failed to amuse.
The ghost of Jean Shepherd haunts the pages of Return of the Dittos, a collection of short stories by Dale Andrew White. (Yes, the review has begun.) While White does not yet have the finesse of a Jean Shepherd, he can tell a story that is involving, funny, and surprising. It’s those surprises — those little twists off the track and fragments from left field — that amuse.
I hate when I guess how a story is going to end, and in very short stories (as these are), if the endings are telegraphed in the first two or three paragraphs, they are boring and disappointing. White’s first story, “An Unlikely Story,” is a scant three pages, with a surprise ending. Only when rereading it, did I discover that a clue to the conclusion lay in the opening paragraph. This first-person tale leads you down the garden path to the ending where you step into a bear trap. Naturally, that left me wanting more.
The titular story, “Return of the Dittos,” is a parody of reunion shows — the type in which a cast of unknowns reunite after twenty years for a “special” production. Special for them, I guess, because they haven’t seen a paycheck in years.
I thought I heard a bit of a Jean Shepherd chuckle while I was reading “The Labors of Peon,” another first-person story that tells of a young man’s first job (as a supermarket bag boy) and his rise to short-lived power. Later in the book we meet Adam Peon again as he reminisces about his days on the high school newspaper.
The stories collected in Return of the Dittos and Other Stories are uneven. Some are very funny, some are not. In most collections there are favorites and stories that are less enjoyable; this one is no different. White updates Columbus and the discovery of America, and it falls flat. Humor is so subjective though, others might find it to be a riot. All of the stories are so short that reading through one or two that do not meet expectations does not actually count as suffering.
Just about halfway through Return of the Dittos and Other Stories, the reader receives a message from an unexpected source. It is a clever concept with sinister overtones. Another story is a sweet eulogy to a seemingly unknown woman. Unexpected stories like that make the book a pleasure.
Whether writing about the end of the world, terrorist swans, entering the afterlife, or high school journalism, White entertains with clever asides, obvious (and some not-so-obvious) puns, and cultural and societal pokes. His stories combine satire, slapstick, innuendo, and outright silliness. All of it is punctuated with interesting, quirky characters.
White has positioned himself on a high peak in left field from which he can survey the oddities and idiosyncrasies of a weird world. He reports what he sees so we don’t actually have to experience it. Reading about it is more amusing, anyway.
Bottom Line: Would I buy Return of the Dittos and Other Stories? Yes, and I plan to find Moe Howard Died for Our Sins, Dale Andrew White’s previous book.