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edge staff writer


‘Night of the Living Rez’ a scintillating short fiction collection

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It’s a rare thing to be really and truly grabbed by a book. Sure, there are works that will hold your attention long enough to allow you to sink into them. And sometimes, that connection never bears out and you abandon ship. But for a book to seize you by the shirt, commanding and demanding your attention and refusing to let go from the word go, well … that doesn’t happen very often.

But it does happen. And when it does? Strap in, because you’re going on a journey.

Morgan Talty’s new book “Night of the Living Rez” (Tin House, $16.95) is going to take you on a trip, pulling you through a world with which you are likely unfamiliar, even as it exists alongside your own. This collection of a dozen stories is a reflection and exploration of Talty’s history and heritage as a member of the Penobscot Nation, bringing together moments of triumph and tragedy as it digs into the realities of what it means to be connected to one’s culture while also striving to live in the larger world.

Every one of these stories is effective on its own, brimming with a bifurcated and self-aware energy. But as they are consumed together, they feed on one another, spiraling upward on waves of simple joy and sadness and dark humor generated by the trials and tribulations of a singular young man. This is a book that is more than the sum of its parts, each tale a piece of the puzzle; it all comes together into a smart, thoughtful and utterly fascinating big picture.

The collection comes out hot with “Burn” – it’s the shortest piece in the book, but it sets the tone beautifully, capturing the combination of bravado and desperation at work in the lives of these young men. Winding together a bleak realism with a moment of absurd hilarity – a guy gets his braid frozen to the snow – “Burn” is precisely what I’m talking about when I talk about a book seizing me by the shirt. Half-a-dozen pages of exquisite storytelling.

And we’re off.

The stories of “Night of the Living Rez” move back and forth in time; this offers us the benefit of insight into both boyhood and the journey into manhood, as well as what comes after. Our hero – David, or sometimes simply D – is constantly seeking meaning. He seeks it from his friendships, from his family and from his larger community. Some lessons are hard-earned and others are freely given, but he is always learning about the people around him … even if he doesn’t always like what he learns.

“In a Jar” offers up an observation of the cross-section (and cross purposes) of modern and traditional beliefs even as we have our first meeting with David’s family – his sister, his mom, his mom’s boyfriend. It’s a microcosm of sorts, giving us a baseline understanding of what would come, even as David is just a boy. “Smokes Last” illustrates the deep and complicated connection between young men of a certain age – particularly when said young men are seeking something that they can’t quite articulate. And the book’s final piece – “The Name Means Thunder” – is a haunting, gut-wrenching story of choices and consequences, the sort of story that burrows into your brain and lodges itself in your soul.

(Just FYI, one of these stories features plans for a heist inspired by “Antiques Roadshow.” I’ll leave it to you to discover which one.)

The truth is that every one of the stories within the pages of “Night of the Living Rez” warrants more intellectual exploration than I have available ink. These are thoughtfully rendered and beautifully written stories, stopping at various points on a unique coming-of-age pathway. Each tale wrestles with large questions of identity, showing the struggle that comes with trying to maintain a connection to the past while also embracing the possibility of the future. David and the people around him are flawed, to be sure, but they are also steadfast and brave, even if they occasionally stumble along the way.

Talty’s connection to his Penobscot heritage is the life’s blood of this book. Each of these stories shows the complicated nature of that connection; it permeates every aspect of his life, both in terms of how he experiences it and how it is perceived from the outside. The old saw is “Write what you know,” and while it’s a little more complicated than that, there’s no disputing that Talty knows of what he speaks here – and the reader is the luckier for it.

Here's the thing: when it comes time for a written work to make the leap from good to great, well … the devil is in the details. And it is in those details that Talty truly shines. He has this remarkable ability to capture the smallest moments and render them both simply and memorably. These vivid snapshots are profligate on every page, the bits that turn a perfectly fine story into something greater. Something more. The impact of these glimpses – a teenage rock fight, a dented kitchen table, a solitary action figure – is inescapable and undeniable and cannot be overstated.

Now, this book wasn’t initially conceived as a novel-in-stories – these pieces came together at different times and first appeared in different spaces – but there’s no denying the interconnectedness of the book as a whole; it all comes together in such a way as to capture a life writ large. These stories evoke the energies of a small, tight-knit community, one where victories are celebrated and struggles are shared.

“Night of the Living Rez” is an exceptional and powerful collection, a book that addresses its world and the people living in it in myriad ways. These stories are packed with sharp edges, quiet dignity and dark humor. Smart, funny and challenging, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time.

(You can read our interview with author Morgan Talty here.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 06 July 2022 15:56


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