September 27: “Nothing But the Dead and Dying” by Ryan W. Bradley

How’s it hanging, Story366! I hope you are all recovered from last night’s debates and the after-debate parties. Now it’s Tuesday, which means garbage day around these parts, and if you want to extract some sort of metaphor linking those two things, then go ahead. I got nothing that doesn’t already speak for itself. Or that social media hasn’t already gobbled up and spit out in the form of memes. I can add nothing.

For today’s post, I read from Ryan W. Bradley’s collection, Nothing But the Dead and Dying, out from Civil Coping Mechanisms. Full disclosure here, Ryan designed the cover for my third book, I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories, a cover that I love, love, love, so I have a soft spot in my heart for him regardless. And honestly, I haven’t read much of Ryan’s work, so I was more than happy to rectify that for today, enjoying several of the stories from this collection.

Nothing But the Dead and Dying uses a line from a Simon and Garfunkel song, “My Little Town” for its title, something I can see as I read these stories. These pieces reveal the small but desperately serious problems of people in rural America, and while it’s not clear if all of these people are living in the same small town (Bradley’s website reveals they all take place in Alaska), down-and-outers from the towns between the towns on the map are well represented here. At times, Bradley depicts some regular, working-class agendas, but at other times, he really reaches for the fringe element, delving into the most desperate of the desperate. At times the collection feels very working class, and at other times, it feels more like Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollack, or Frank Bill, writers who I’ve already covered this year on this blog.

And since we favor extremes at Story366, I am of course going to write about one of the stories that lies on said fringe, the title story, “Nothing But the Dead and Dying.” It’s the first story I read, which set a particular bar for the collection, in terms of intensity, effect, and nastiness. The story is about a trio of teens stuck in a love triangle, if you can use the word “love” to describe anything in this story. Sarah, who is in the middle of all of this, is pregnant, only she doesn’t know if it’s Tug’s baby—he’s her steady—or if it’s Holt’s, Tug’s best friend. Sarah hasn’t told Tug about the baby, let alone about her affair with Holt, leaving that to Holt, who still likes Tug as a best friend. Tug, meanwhile, does a lot of meth (as does Holt and Sarah) as Tug’s Uncle Pete is the local gourmet. Pete (we get a section of his POV, too) considers bringing Tug into the family business, but he knows Tug is flat-out too dumb; Pete has a good thing going and makes a lot of money and doesn’t need Tug screwing that up (yeah, this is a lot like the Frank Bill story I covered this summer). Consolation prize for Tug: Uncle Pete gives him his meth for cheap because a) he’s his nephew, and b) it’s kind of Uncle Pete’s fault that Tug’s dad, Pete’s old partner, is doing a long stretch in the clink for … drumroll … selling meth!

So, this is the world that Bradley is describing here, though it’s the extreme case I found so far in his book. The other stories let up on the gas a little bit, examining some folks with a considerably larger shred of human decency, not to mention common sense. Does that mean I dislike “Nothing But the Dead and Dying?” No, I liked the story a lot, for its honesty, its shock value, and the risks Bradley takes in telling it, including POV shifts to whichever character need to be telling the story at any particular moment. I won’t reveal what happens to this merry band, as you can read it and find out for yourself, but I’ll give you a hint: They have Jordan almonds at the baby shower, the pastel kind, which match the nursery.

Or not.

I like all the stories I read in Ryan Bradley’s Nothing But the Dead and Dying, straightforward, real tales about people who don’t seem to have been born with a lot of luck, who don’t seem to make a lot on their own. Bradley dishes it, dishes it hard, making for a sobering read.