It’s uncommon to be completely engrossed by a book. Some works will retain your attention long enough for you to immerse yourself in them. And occasionally that connection fails to materialize, and you abandon ship. But for a book to grab you by the shirt, commanding and demanding your attention from the start and refusing to let go, well… that doesn’t happen very often.
However, it does occur. And what happens when it does? Buckle up, because you’re about to embark on an adventure.
Morgan Talty’s latest book “Night of the Living Rez” (Tin House, $16.95) will transport you to a world you’re likely unfamiliar with, even as it coexists with your own. This collection of a dozen stories is a reflection and investigation of Talty’s history and heritage as a Penobscot Nation member, bringing together triumphs and tragedies as it delves into the reality of what it means to be tied to one’s culture while still seeking to live in the greater
Each of these pieces is powerful on its own, bursting with a split and self-aware spirit. However, as they absorb one another, they feed on one another, rising higher on waves of simple joy, anguish, and dark humor caused by the struggles and sufferings of a unique young man. This is a book that is greater than the sum of its parts; each story is a piece of the puzzle that fits together to form a brilliant, intelligent, and immensely intriguing whole.
The collection begins with “Burn,” the shortest poem in the collection, but it sets the tone well, conveying the combination of arrogance and desperation at work in these young men’s lives. “Burn” is exactly what I’m talking about when I talk about a novel taking me by the shirt, combining bleak realism with a moment of ludicrous humor – a guy has his braid frozen to the snow. A half-dozen pages of superb storytelling.
The stories in “Night of the Living Rez” jump around in time, giving us insight into both boyhood and the path into adulthood, as well as what happens after. Our protagonist, David, or simply D, is always looking for significance. He looks for it in his friendships, his family, and his greater community. Some lessons are hard-earned, while others are freely given, but he is constantly learning about the people around him… even if he doesn’t always agree with what he learns.
“In a Jar” observes the intersection (and conflict) of modern and traditional ideas, even as we meet David’s family for the first time – his sister, his mother, and his mother’s boyfriend. It’s a microcosm of sorts, giving us a sense of what’s to come even though David is still a little lad. “Smokes Last” depicts the profound and intricate bond between young men of a specific age, especially when such young men are looking for something they can’t quite express. “The Name Means Thunder,” the book’s concluding piece, is a terrifying, gut-wrenching drama of choices and consequences, the kind of story that burrows into your brain and lodges itself in your soul.
The truth is that each of the stories in “Night of the Living Rez” deserves more philosophical examination than I have adequate ink for. These are intelligently rendered and wonderfully written stories that take you on a unique coming-of-age journey. Each story grapples with large concerns of identity, demonstrating the difficulty of retaining a connection to the past while still embracing the promise of the future. To be sure, David and those around him are imperfect, but they are also steadfast and brave, even if they periodically fail along the road.
This work is powered by Talty’s connection to his Penobscot ancestors. Each of these anecdotes demonstrates the complexities of that relationship; it pervades every part of his life, both in terms of how he perceives it and how others interpret it. While it’s a little more nuanced than that, there’s no denying that Talty understands what he’s talking about here – and the reader is the better for it.
The truth is when it comes to moving a literary work from good
exceptional, the devil is in the details. Talty truly shines in the details. He has a unique ability to capture the slightest details and convey them simply and memorably. These evocative pictures abound on every page, transforming a perfectly good story into something even better. Something more. The impact of these glimpses – a teenage rock fight, a dented kitchen table, a lone action figure – is inescapable and undeniable, and cannot be exaggerated.
This book was not originally designed as a novel in stories – these sections came together at different times and first appeared in separate places – but there’s no doubting the book’s connection as a whole; it all fits together in such a manner that it captures a life writ large. These stories conjure up images of a small, close-knit community where achievements are cherished and challenges are shared.
“Night of the Living Rez” is a remarkable and compelling collection, a book that speaks to its world and the people who live in it in a variety of ways. These stories are full of jagged edges, calm dignity, and dark humor. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It’s smart, funny, and challenging.