Nothing but the Dead and Dying
By Ryan W. Bradley
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015
272 pages, $13.95
Reviewed by Gabino Iglesias
The first story of a collection should give readers a glimpse of what’s to come. Ryan W. Bradley’s “Haul Road,” which opens Nothing but the Dead and Dying, does exactly that. A short narrative that balances the grit of hard labor and the murderous cold of the Alaskan tundra with the inner lives of two men and their relationship to fatherhood, the story announces to readers they’re in for a violent, gloomy, and emotionally punishing book. In the following stories, Bradley delivers on that promise, and does so with a series of cohesive elements that end up leaving an indelible mark and turning this into a memorable collection.
In Nothing but the Dead and Dying, the usual variation in terms of strength is present in the stories, but it’s different in the sense that they only go from strong to outstanding and there are no throwaways. The first tale that deserves attention is “The Pit Bull’s Tooth,” which offers a brief and unflinching look into the lives of a young girl and her mom, whom she wants to turn into a pit bull again to protect them from abuse. This story is a perfect example of the vulnerability that almost all of Bradley’s characters share and that makes them so unforgettable. It’s also a good example of the sharp, straightforward prose that makes the delivery of each narrative a bit of a punch to the brain:
“What I remember most is the pit bull’s tooth he wore on fishing line around his neck. I’d heard of shark’s tooth necklaces, seen it in movies. A California surfer thing. And I’d had friends, natives, who told me about the bear’s teeth and eagle talons their grandparents kept, but Buddy was something else entirely. A kind of man I’d never met. He was my mother’s boyfriend during the summer of ’07, her first since Dad had taken a job in the lower 48 and left us behind. I was nine.”
Bradley’s work is rooted in reality. His characters feel real and the dialogue helps the illusion. Once the reader enters his world, a nasty place in which heartbreak, loneliness, cold, unwanted pregnancies, and cancer are just some of the everyday realities that people have to deal with, he proceeds to eviscerate him or her in the best way possible. Even when hope makes an appearance, its presence is short-lived. In “Valley of the Moon,” for example, a father comes back after beating his alcoholism and eventually starts developing a relationship with his son, a shy boy who suffered from many surgeries to fix a cleft palate. I won’t give away the ending, but will offer a warning: this one hurts.
While many of the stories are direct and offer a resolution, there are also a few that show the author’s playful/mysterious side. In these stories, like in the work of all great horror masters, what is left out of the page is what matters most. In “The Last Frontier,” a man who’s away working comes home a day late to his pregnant wife and sees a car outside their home. Surprisingly, that’s all Bradley needs to tell an engrossing story. Similarly, “The Piñata” is the tale of a man who finds out his wife is cheating on him and plots a hilarious vengeance. Probably the only funny story in the book, this one also showcases the author’s knack for framing Alaska’s beauty with equally beautiful language regardless of the situation:
I kicked softly at the pile of condoms, their disarray spelled out an ending to everything I’d known. I began gathering them in the towel Juliette had left behind. I picked up the pieces of the piñata, too. Between and across the co…dom wrappers, the bright shards of confetti and sparkles made their own pattern under the iridescent night sky.
A lot of people turn to fiction to escape reality and maybe to momentarily imagine themselves in a more comfortable, caring space. Nothing but the Dead and Dying is not a book for those people. Time after time, pregnancies are problems, depression is looming, and something awful is there to remind us of our own fragility. There’s cancer and pain, loss and violence, young people suffering and even a school shooting (the story is titled “Hunt” and it’s too close to current events not to be deemed relevant). Finally, there are narratives like “Where We Go From Here,” where most of those elements meet to present a couple that has morphed into each other’s enemy due to pain:
Susan wanted Raymond to ask what she had done during her time away from the hospital. She wanted him to get angry and to yell that she should have been there, like him, by their son’s side. She wanted him to call her a bad mother. She wanted him to say something. Anything. Anything at all.
Nothing but the Dead and Dying is a powerful, prickly read that tests the reader’s endurance. However, it is also a very humane, masterful collection that showcases a very talented author cutting to the marrow of human suffering and sharing what he finds in that wound. Fans of a great fiction should definitely make sure they read this on.