Neil and Other Stories, by J. Bradley. Whiskey Tit, May 2018. $12.50, paper.
Neil and Other Stories is a prepossessing examination of a parent’s influence on the internal life of their child. At first, the reader approaches what seems to be disparate scenes, but as the stories progress, a singular interlinking story begins to form. Neil and Other Stories is a predominantly a collection of flash fiction pieces that culminates in two parts; firstly with an eponymous novella-in-flash and then an eponymous play. The flash novella and the play mirror each other, though the different forms introduce new elements of the story to the audience.
In the first third of the book, the “Other Stories” portion, each section is a childhood scene, imbued with a child’s anger and sadnesses. Bradley deftly manages to recreate the pitch of these emotions so that they reach the biting keenness that we seem to only experience in youth. His skillful use of language combined with the sharp arch of the flash form allows the poignant sting to quickly and distinctly surface without crossing the line into maudlin.
From “GREEN THUMB”:
Mother plants her seeds, again. I ask Mother why she didn’t wait for the hosts to reach a place with adequate sunlight. Too much noise isn’t good for them, Mother says. She points at the wake of helicopters around our neighborhood. Someone on TV reads from a list of names, again.
Mother lifts the binoculars hanging around her neck, goes back to watching the front door across the street. Mother hopes that this time her seeds will grow, wrap around bone and sinew, muscle and nerve, feed from whatever blood is left. She waits to see what they will become.
Some of the most interesting passages are ones in which Bradley experiments with form. Intermittently, Bradley peppers the book with what he calls “Job Aids” (for example, “HOW TO GHOST JOB AID,” “HOW TO SURVIVE AN EELE JOB AID,” and “HOW TO BURN A BRIDGE JOB AID”), which read like poetic instruction manuals.
From “HOW TO GHOST JOB AID”:
After the first third of the book, right before the main “Neil” portions, the stories begin to shift between childhood and adult life. As the reader moves into the novella, the narrator becomes positioned intergenerationally as a man between his father and his son. The narrative begins to move alternately between the narrator’s past and present, making the protagonist himself simultaneously both a father and a son. The characters form an unholy trinity through which Bradley evaluates parenthood with a pureness and honesty, and all the ugliness that truth can hold. The parents and the children and the parent-children are full of error and fear and ignorance and hatred—the entire swell of human qualities that crescendos in something never named but possesses the soft outline of love or loss.
It is easy to admire J. Bradley’s ability to focus on the minute details of life. Scissors chewing through someone’s hair. The spine of a used checkbook. Jelly on a knife. A dead animal in the yard. However, his true talent is being able to create a fully affecting experience within a paragraph or two. While the “Other Stories” portion really exists as an integral prelude to the rest of the novel, once the reader understands the structure, Neil and Other Stories flows nicely from one flash scene to the next. Particular gems include “FACTORY RECALL,” “I HAVE NOT BEEN TOUCHED IN TWO YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, AND 11 ½ DAYS,” and “XENOMORPH.” By the end, Neil and Other Stories reminds us of the consubstantial nature of an individual, at once material and metaphysical, hopeful and hate-filled, aching with the dolorous craving for love.
From “MY HEART SOAKS UP EVERY DROP OF YOUR BLOOD”:
You want teeth, a throat, and a stomach. If you had these things, you could snap at the boy’s limbs when he fumbles again. You would envelop him the way you do with loose change, pencils, and crumbs. Love can be a butcher, you would whisper until his body promises to finally pay attention.
Jesi Buell is the Managing Editor of KERNPUNKT Press.