Surviving in Drought
By Brad Aaron Modlin
The Cupboard Pamphlet Press, 2019
39 Pages, $10.00
Review by Hannah Jackson

Brad Aaron Modlin’s chapbook Surviving in Drought (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2019) examines how, although we may have to soon face the effects of climate change—a literal drought—there are also more personal droughts such as marriage, divorce, parenthood, retirement, and attempted redemption that will continue on. Modlin uses a modular form to experiment with point of view and time, letting each story be distinct but also united, leaving an impression of beauty and optimism as well as confirming the messiness of life.

In “Five Men in a Drought,” Modlin provides a snapshot of how each man is experiencing a post-drought world and how each man is connected almost intimately with the climate. One man’s hopeful wait for the rain contrasts with the despair he feels at being forced into an early retirement. He reflects on an anecdote his mother told him when he was a boy—“‘All good things must come to an end—including the world.’” The contrast of such small, anecdotal issues against how the individual is affected by climate change conveys how our despair and hopelessness is tied to earth’s death.

Modlin does not name his characters but weaves specific, empathizing details into each story—such as the father whose one son “is shaped a bit like a freckled trapezoid, the other an inverted triangle;” or the man who wants to be a father but “the whole parking lot turns into static” every time he is with a woman; or the man who feels that his wife only married him “the way some people buy fixer-upper houses.” Most striking is the woman in “Unicursal” who carries a meat cleaver around that she talks to. At the beginning, the meat cleaver is described as having “a self-important voice,” and its authority causes her to question herself as she thinks, “‘He’s going to leave you and the children and move to Tahiti like he’s always dreamed of.’” However, in the end, she throws the meat cleaver in the dumpster and tells herself, “‘You can continue on your own,’” demonstrating how she has overcome the self-doubt she has carried all her life.

Modlin also tracks his characters lives through jumps in time. I am reminded of how in “The Deep,” by Anthony Doerr, the author follows the life of Tom from his birth until he is twenty-one years old, using the repeated statement of Tom’s age as a motif. I’m also reminded of “A Man Like Him,” in which Yiyun Li includes a few flashbacks that give insight into Teacher Fei’s character so that as the story advances, readers understand more and more his motivations for contacting the girl in the magazine’s father and his own resignation to the order of life. In contrast, in “Dark Gray Door,” Modlin starts at the end of a couple’s aimless marriage in the drought and moves backwards, showing the beginnings along with the melting glaciers and flooding earth. Over the course of the story as it moves backward in time, he depicts how the couple’s relationship worsened in the cramped boat until we are at the end, seeing the beginning of their tense relationship as they sit atop their roof surrounded by an increasingly flooded earth. He does not end with the worst-case scenario but instead what we could be on the brink of facing—sitting atop our roofs aimlessly wondering what we could have done when it is finally too late.

For readers who feel hopeless in an ever-changing world where humanity and nature struggle to coexist, Surviving in Drought offers an honest examination about the future we face, along with the small ways we can potentially find hope and community with one another. Modlin speaks to the messiness of life and the trials that we all face in an effort to provoke deep thought about where we should search for hope—that there is connection between the individual and the climate, and perhaps that is where we may best face the oncoming change.