by Ryan W. Bradley
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2014
172 pages, $11.26
Reviewed by Ben East
The prologue to Ryan W. Bradley’s Winterswim strikes quick and brutal: a violent pastor, a forced conversion to Christ, a victim on a frozen lake in the arctic night. The pastor murders his young female prey by pushing her head through the ice until her flopping body goes limp. Conversion—“Jesus is my lord and savior”—and murder accomplished, the pastor lifts the corpse by the ankles and lets it slide into the wintry black water.
Bradley’s spare prose creates a strong and palpable reality. His characters are true to their demographic: a high school boy obsessed with tits and the young female body generally; a small-town tart-turned-starlet in all her narcissistic glory; a strung out Pastor with a deviant sense of The Rapture and his van-driving meth dealer. These characters and others are well-drawn in the plainest of terms. And the premise is simple enough. Pastor Long gains his victims’ trust through the church youth group. Then he gets them alone. Then he gets them high. He fucks them, it seems over the course of several encounters. He elicits their commitment to Christ. Then he kills them.
It’s simple and salacious and a lot of the writing is very good, on a technical level. But one overarching problem undermines it all. The parents don’t suspect. The cops don’t suspect. Only the Pastor’s motherless son, 16-year-old Steven, has the ability to piece together the basic array of serial crimes occurring around town. Can the authorities really be so blind as to fail at linking these very similar murders: an attractive high school female dumped in Cottonwood Lake last spring; next victim—different high school but same church—death by drowning chalked up to the meth in her system; later Serena Spencer, the high school girl the Pastor shares corporally, and graphically, with his dealer on the shag carpet in Pratt’s beat up van; later still, yet another female member of the church youth club, Rebecca.
Bradley at least makes an effort to explain the mental deficiency among the adults who populate this story. Parents are grateful just to have Pastor Long pay attention to their daughters. Cops and journalists are “too disinterested” to pursue yet another drowning of yet another high school girl in a lake not too far from the last time they found the corpse of a high school girl drowned in a lake. Too disinterested? This is a small town cop’s wet dream, a journalist’s ticket out of Dodge, perhaps to the limelight of a bigger city… like Anchorage. Surely the temptation to crack a case like this is superior to idling in a police cruiser on a lonely stretch of arctic highway, waiting for the town drunk to drive by at five mph above the speed limit.
The glaring problem presents itself immediately, when principal protagonist Steven breaks into the morgue after the opening murder. Very quickly he’s the only person in town to note the strangulation marks around the victim’s throat. A sixteen year-old, on his first B&E, at night, into a morgue, staring at the naked corpse of his classmate on a slab, and he’s got wits enough to identify strangulation marks the medical examiner missed? Something is wrong with the authorities, and something worse amiss with the parents of the girls who let their daughters attend one-on-one counseling with Pastor Long.
How Pastor Long becomes the depraved madman he is, in pursuit of his particular brand of “Rapture”, is an inventive back-story from the wilds of Alaska, including legends from his mother’s Tlingit mythology. It’s just enough to make the reader understand where some of this is coming from, even if it’s impossible to sympathize with a serial rapist and murderer of women below the age of consent (in most states).
Bradley’s writing is good (not flawless, but good). A victim’s first experience with meth: “She could feel the universe with her skin. Her nipples were antennas;” “She was the snow. Melting and wet and so far away.” Later, “The blizzard inside Rebecca stopped. She felt nothing, no fingers, no lips, no tongue. She was a puddle.” And he nails the narcissism of perhaps his most colorful character, Kate Stultz, the small-town tart, once nicknamed Jailbait Kate by the bored fathers she seduced after babysitting their kids in the days before she went to Hollywood to make it big: “She walked out of the store, taking small bites from one (snack food) and winking at the men and women she passed on the way back to her car… Kate fed on the looks of envy, lust, and awe that followed her around the little hick town.” Another victim, this detail: “She was sweaty and some of the pastor’s semen leaked down the inside of her bare thigh.” From Pastor Long’s perspective: “They would get high and they would fuck and they would do the Lord’s work. Amen.”
Solid as much of the writing is, it’s also got flaws, from a steady drumbeat of comma ticks to a few well-worn phrases: we have the Pastor “springing into action;” Serena Spencer’s cheeks “bloom with color” at the thought of getting high or fucking. There’s this tough sell: Steven begins “to feel like he was in a crime novel.” It feels like a cameo of sorts, a character referencing the genre that gives him breath… Steven IS in a crime novel. Later Steven hits the floor like some “spasmodic commando…”, an awkward description that ruins the tension established by having the protagonist nearly caught snooping in a murderer’s private lair. Later Steven “surveyed the bar” and “tried not to look out of place.” Surely in the trying, he renders his appearance out of place.
I liked a lot of Winterswim, and offer this possible redemption to my main criticism of official and parental cluelessness: take the novella as a political statement. After all, the story takes place in Wasilla, Alaska, the town that gave us Sarah Palin. In fact they made her mayor—TWICE. It would be unkind to suggest that everybody in Wasilla is a knucklehead (only 651 people voted for her the first time; 909 the second). Still more said “yes” than said “no” to having the mother of Trig and Track as their mayor. We all may have been better off if they’d elected another of the town’s famous denizens—porn “actress” April Flowers.
In the final analysis Winterswim is the product of a talented writer who’s given us a violent and explosive cross between Boys Life magazine and Penthouse Forum. A little more plot and a little less sex. It reads, in the end, like a letter to the editor of High Society or some other glossy porno mag: “She reached behind her back and unhooked it while the pastor kissed her breasts. His hand reached down and undid her jeans. His fingers pushed into her panties. She had shaved in anticipation of the night, and his fingers glided across her skin and and (sic) then slid inside. Pastor Long… crawled between her legs. Pratt unzipped his jeans and… played with himself while the pastor…”
It treats some serious topics: addiction, redemption, rape, abuse. It even teases out a rare and special Native mythology overwritten by Christianity. But it’s glossy. It’s porn, with a bit of plot and backstory.