Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty

“Mom had no money, and I knew better than to look. What money she ever came into she blew. Money—it was everywhere but nowhere.”

Over the last few years, I have developed a certain fondness for collections of interlinked short stories, especially when they focus on the same character or various members of the same family. I enjoy the way these collections often ‘disrupt’ the typical linear coming-of-age story, presenting us instead with self-contained stories that hone in on a specific period or moment of a character’s life. I like the way they can achieve an almost snap-shot-like quality, one that really brings into focus the emotions and experiences of that specific moment. While here the style is pretty consistent, these collections also have the ability to implement different literary devices and of playing around with perspectives (switching between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd povs). If you like other collections with this type of format (such as Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford, Patricia Engel’s Vida, and Zalika Reid-Benta’s Frying Plantain), you should definitely not miss out on Night of the Living Rez. Additionally, if you also happen to appreciate narratives exploring fraught dynamics and dysfunctional families, novels such as Nuclear Family by Joseph Han & Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds or memoirs like Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden or Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller, then Morgan Talty’s debut should be up your street. Stylistically, thematically and tonally I was reminded of several other contemporary works by Indigenous authors, from David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s crime thriller Winter Counts to Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach & Son of a Trickster, which combine magical realism with a coming-of-age narrative.

“You from the rez?” he said.
I didn’t look too Native, and so I said, “Yeah, how’d you know?”
“Your shirt says ‘Native Pride.’”

This collection comprises 12 short stories in which we follow our protagonist, who is a member of the Penobscot Nation and living with his family on a reservation in Maine. In these various stories, we are reunited with our narrator (i believe his name was Dee…?) as a child, a teen, and an adult. In many of these stories we see him, or the people close to him, struggle with dependency and attempt to co-exist (however dysfunctionally) with the rest of his family. Many of these stories are pure funny sad, as Talty perfectly brings together humor with a brutal yet precise exploration of very heavy themes. While I can predict that some readers will be frustrated by the ways the characters fail themselves and each other (falling into ‘bad habits’ or lifestyles, lying to one another about important sh*t, neglecting themselves and others) for me it really hit close to home. It isn’t to cut yourself loose from the people you love or the people who know you, and I appreciated how unjudgemental the author was in portraying his characters’ struggles with addiction etc. Recently-ish I mentioned in another review that I had to return to the city I grew up in because my father had fallen off the wagon big time and had to be hospitalized so, well, there were quite a few scenes that felt painfully familiar. But that’s enough about me. Talty encourages his readers not only to feel ‘sympathy’ towards his characters but to really emphasise them and their respective situations. The dialogues and the way the characters interacted with one another were strikingly realistic, and I appreciated how chaotic and messy some of these scenes were. By presenting us with a humorous yet ultimately haunting family portrait Talty is able to interrogate the way our legacies and inheritances shape us, and the difficulties in trying to reconcile yourself with a past that has left such indelible marks on your present. In this Talty is able to explore boyhood, generational trauma, and the continued injustices faced by Native communities. As I said, I really appreciated how realistic Talty’s depiction of addiction and trauma were in that he shows that healing is not a linear or straightforward process. Despite the bleak themes and the depressing scenarios described in these stories, this was not a heavy read. The stuff in here is hard-hitting, sure, but there is this energetic humor that gives a sort of lightness to Dee’s narration. Which again makes those painful and sad moments all the more brutal. Another thing worth pointing out is how in certain stories we have this horror-like atmosphere which not only lends authenticity to Dee’s ‘younger’ stories (showing that he is more impressionable) but also reminds us of the horror in the everyday.

Overall, I thought this was a very self-assured debut. The writing is neither distracting nor dull, the dialogues and scenarios are realistically rendered, and the non-linear coming-of-age story was engrossing indeed.

I look forward to revisiting this collection (hopefully when i am in a less stressful period of my life and give it the attention it deserves) and I am curious to read Talty’s future work.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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