ALC · Contemporary Literature · Humor · Short Stories

Night of the Living Rez

This recent release is one that mostly made it onto my TBR list after being offered as an ALC from Once that got it on my radar, I did see a couple reviews for it pop up here and there, everything really positive, but it just seems like the proverbial publication splash it made was small. I hadn’t read a lot of short story collections this year – I mean I don’t usually read that many, but I was due for one is more the point – so I figured why not give it a try.

Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty

“I wonder if ‘How’d we get here?’ is the wrong question. Maybe the right question is ‘How do we get out of here?’ Maybe that’s the only question that matters.”

In this collection, a series of vignettes of inter-related characters, the reader gets a number of glimpses into the lives of members of the Penobscot tribe, on a reservation in Maine. So many aspects are universally recognizable, addiction and drug misuse, grandparents suffering from Alzheimer’s, poverty and lack of access to quality services, money-making schemes, the made-up games of young friends, etc. And yet, each story is also presented to the reader within the unique framework of living on tribal land, the intergenerational traumas that are unique to this population, and the traditional beliefs around curses and medicine and healing of the Penobscot.

So, everything about this work made it seem like short stories, even the subtitle is “stories,” and I understand that most of them we published separately in multiple publications before being brought together here. But I have read books advertised as novels that are less connected than this. It took me a bit to catch on, but the MC in every story was the same, just his age (and what people nicknamed him) changed. That being said, this is a number of vignettes without a specific plot-unfolding, I guess, and yet they build to a final two chapters that, as the “before” and “after” of the previous stories converge, give us both a “what happened to delineate the before from the after” and a “looking back from a far future perspective” that really do wrap things up with a fairly traditional denouement. All that to say, the structure and presentation was slightly different than anticipated, and I will be giving a normal “altogether” review, as opposed to blurbs about each individual story like I normally do for collections.

Because these are vignette-style, the stories are able to give really impactful snapshot insights to different relationships or interactions or moments, that highlight the key aspects of these characters and their identities, without the pressure of having to overly develop or connect them to each other. This allows each chapter/story to be particularly striking, ether emotionally or in observation, and makes the overall impact of the book that much greater. Included in these topics of great impact are: addiction and mental health/illness (in general and specifically related to the experience as a indigenous person), the way the youth see and interpret said struggles with mental health, the varieties of casual violence of life on/off/adjacent to the reservation, the way that getting older makes you view and understand your parents in such different ways, the specific tragedy of memory loss/Alzheimer’s, the choices related to how and with who we spend our time, trauma of all varieties (inherited, experienced, observed), and more.

Talty also really delves into the complexities of pride in your heritage and who you are, juxtaposed with a world that contradicts that with messages of your worthlessness constantly, and how one deals with that. It really comes as no surprise that mental illness and addiction result. There are many forms of addiction/substance misuse represented, but in particular, the role of smoking/cigarettes in everything – all interactions and relationships and daily life – it was repeated to a point of literary excess. Other than (obviously) being a baseline daily reality, I felt sure that it meant something more (in context, as a metaphor, etc.), but I am not sure I could ever get a handle on what it might be. It just felt like…more. In addition, there is a great and consistent juxtaposition of contemporary life and traditional beliefs, some touching and poignant, some demoralizing/upsetting, and some just observational, but all crafted with a deft hand.

Lastly, I want to address this being categorized as horror. The reference/implication of the title definitely makes that feel stronger than it actually comes across on page. There are a few creepy sort of moments, with the curse in a jar and dead caterpillars sections, and I guess you could argue the pugwagees mythology (one of my favorite little sections to read – I love cultural fantasy/mythology) in the titular story qualify as a sort of “story told to scare kids” situation, but for someone as big a scaredy-cat as me….it felt pretty chill on the horror front. I will say, the ending (final story) came as a (big!) surprise to me (cw: child death), and I guess after that I could see how it might tilt the overall collection over into horror. 

There was a deep, smoldering sort of feel to this collection, a banked – never extinguished but never with enough time/energy to bring it to full flame – sort of anger at the inevitability David’s life. I actually wished, as this was presented as a story collection, that we had a chance to get a few other perspectives, particularly those of David’s mother and sister, or his grandmother, or his friend Fellis’ mother. And this feeling only grew as we read the last story and find out what the major/defining event in David’s young life was – based on what happened, and how David’s family chose to handle it, I would really have appreciated more from the (older than David and female) characters. Other than that, the deep ring of truth within each of these stories, and nuance of the characters, and the lovely writing of it all, was very high quality.

A few pull-quotes and passages:

“…I sensed that even though their problems were their own, there was no escaping how these problems shaped us all, no escaping the end, like the way the ice melts in the river each spring, overflowing and and creeping up the grassy banks and over lawns, reaching farther and farther towards the houses until finally the water touched stone, a gentleness before the river converged on the foundation, seeping inside and flooding basements, insulation swelling, drying only when the water has receded.”

“Maybe even wishing I was a winooch and didn’t live on a reservation whose history was in a little museum and could be stolen for a buck. Didn’t make any sense that parts of us were worth so much and at the same time we were worth so little.”

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