Nothing but the Dead and Dying: Stories, by Ryan W. Bradley. Civil Coping Mechanisms, December 2015. 272 pages. $13.95, paper.
The title of Ryan W. Bradley’s eighth book, Nothing but the Dead and Dying, pulls no punches. Set in Alaska, these two-dozen stories are about a dead and dying part of the world, thanks to climate change, and the dead and dying white working class men that have become a media talking point in this year’s election. Bradley’s characters work the pipelines, drive the oil tankers, and dig giant trenches in mud and ice. They work long hours, separated from their wives and children. They are dying, from overwork, from cancer, from a lack of opportunities. They are melting, like Alaska’s glaciers, so quickly that they barely have the language to describe their dissolution.
The collection starts with “Haul Road,” a flash fiction piece about two men driving an oil tanker in heavy snowfall. The younger man has just learned that his girlfriend is pregnant. The two men banter before they hit an icy patch and overturn. They survive, but the tanker hits and cracks a pipeline, leaking massive amounts of oil into the environment. The story ends in an apt metaphor for all the characters in the book: men stumbling blindly forward and leaving irreparable damage in their wake.
The first third of the book feels like an assortment of aborted first acts. In “The Long Grass,” a teen accidentally shoots his father’s dog right before he loses his virginity. In the collection’s titular story, a pregnant high schooler considers an illegal abortion. In “The Pit Bull’s Tooth,” a girl is molested by her mother’s boyfriend. The stories are tight and poignant, but short on surprises.
As the collection progresses, however, the stories become longer, more developed, and consequently more particular. In “Valley of the Moon,” a young man tries to reconnect with a son he’s never seen. In the following passage, despite being told earlier about his kid’s cleft palate, Nolan’s worst self resurfaces when he finally meets the boy:
There’s a flutter in Nolan’s stomach as he sizes Carey up. He’s got Nolan’s black hair. It certainly didn’t come from Sheila, whose whole family has red curls. Despite the boy’s downcast gaze, Nolan can see Carey’s eyes and nose are all his. Classic Roman profile, with deep-set, but bright, blue eyes.
None of this surprises Nolan, he’s spent countless hours putting his son together like a paper doll, changing out features instead of outfits. Carey finally lifts his head, revealing a strip of pink skin under his nose, a thick scar dominating his upper lip.
“Oh man,” Nolan says.
Richard pulls Carey into his hip.
“What’s wrong with you?” Sheila hisses, grabbing Nolan by the arm and pulling him into the kitchen.
In the very moving story “Glaciers,” a man struggles to view his wife sexually after her cancer treatments. His difficulties aren’t physical, they’re psychological. In his wife, he sees a symbol of mortality and is paralyzed by fear. As they try to reconnect, she’s concerned about the melting of the glaciers. Their relationship parallels our relationship to the planet:
She hasn’t left Anchorage, barely left the apartment, since they found the cancer, and Pike says the new overpass is finished. An overpass in the valley, they joked when construction started. Where could it possibly lead?
“We’re receding at twice the rate,” she says so quiet, she’s surprised to hear it.
“Love and Death in the Moose League” is one of the best stories in the collection. A future Hall of Fame baseball player pitches in an Alaskan baseball league, clinging to the end of his playing days. He starts a new life: meets a woman, gets an apartment, unexpectedly buries a teammate. But he’s withholding a key revelation: he’s dying from cancer and has chosen to forego palliative treatment to die playing the game he loves.
In “West,” Bradley tackles the unfortunate and uniquely American story of the high school shooting and makes it new. In this passage, he articulates the shooter’s motive through stunning and lucid internal monologue that makes you think twice about the media narratives surrounding these tragedies:
Even though he knew how he could come to be characterized by the media, and the sound bites of friends, family, classmates, teachers, and neighbors, he thought the plan was worth it. It came down to one thing: mediocrity.
Stephen knew he was no genius, he wasn’t particularly skilled in any area, skating by with high Cs and low Bs his entire academic career. He wasn’t athletically gifted, either, erring more on clumsy. And mediocrity only resulted in one thing in Alaska: working a mediocre job for the rest of your life.
In the school shooter, Bradley encapsulates the concerns of his dead and dying white men and boys in Alaska. The final stories artfully close the loop on the early ones by shifting the reader’s focus from new fathers to dead ones. In the last story, “All Things Infinite,” a grown man sets his recently-passed father out to sea like The Vikings used to.
Stuck on a beautiful landscape that is both dead and the dying, Bradley’s men try and mostly fail to be better selves, making a mess in the process—not unlike what we’ve done to our planet.
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Leland Cheuk is the author of the novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (CCLaP Publishing, 2015). He has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies including one from the MacDowell Colony, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Salon, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, [PANK] Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Margins, and elsewhere. He is also an assistant fiction editor at Newfound Journal. He lives in Brooklyn.