Haunted by the Past: A Review of Morgan Talty’s Night of the Living Rez
Jul 11 ● BY Cameron Busby
Personal loss affects everyone in different ways. If we lose someone close to us at an early age, our development will be forever linked to those feelings, shaping how our outlook of the world grows into focus. Should personal tragedy strike when we are older, certain experiences can prepare us to better handle that flood of emotions. If we were unfortunate enough to witness a tragedy, those memories might linger like zombies in the brain, haunting us from within.
In his debut short-story collection, Night of the Living Rez, Morgan Talty examines the lasting effects of family trauma through the chronicling of David’s journey from an innocent adolescent to a discontented adult. Alternating between David’s childhood and him as a grown man, the interconnected stories show the reader both sides of his development, detailing through first-person narration the transformation from a boy spending his days playing with toy men on the porch steps to a man swiping cigarettes and sleeping in abandoned silos. By sequencing the collection in this manner, time works in a malleable fashion to render characters through different perspectives, showing the reader how choices make lasting impacts on their individual lives. Talty’s stark yet amusing writing style enhances this format by providing an unflinching voice that navigates between moments of peril and tenderness with gracious understanding.
All twelve stories are set in Maine on the Penobscot reservation—Talty’s home tribe. In part, this collection seeks to clarify ideas about indigeneity in the context of how the Penobscot people live their lives in the twenty-first century. Talty’s characters either participate in or go against Native traditions, but each instance shows how this community is bound together through their shared commonalities which are both durable and prone to disorder. Talty is not attempting to speak for all Native people with these stories (he’s not even necessarily speaking for the entire Penobscot Nation) but instead is speaking for his specific characters by breathing life into their family unit with perpetual bursts of compassion and humor.
“Burn” begins the collection almost as a prologue. If you didn’t know these were individual short stories, you might be convinced this was the start to a novel, one sequenced with interesting chapter titles. David is walking home to the rez after failing to buy weed since he lost the money along the way—or at least that’s the lie he goes with in the moment while trying to convince his dealer. The reader quickly learns that David also goes off reservation to visit the methadone clinic and, as a result of taking that substance to help in his struggle with addiction, is ineligible to take part in Native spiritual practices like the monthly peyote ceremonies. Along the way home, he hears his friend Fellis crying out from a nearby swamp, no doubt frozen over with it being winter in Maine. He finds Fellis stuck there, trapped because he fell asleep and his hair froze together with the snow. In order to free his good friend—a roommate in later stories—David has to cut off some of his hair, something Fellis flinches at initially, but agrees to on one condition: David comes back later to retrieve his separated hair so that the two of them can burn it together, ensuring no one could use it in a curse against him.
Each story lives in that same atmosphere, one that’s razor-sharp in its intentionality, placing the reader in an otherworldly state-of-mind as they gradually come to learn how characters move through the space. Readers begin to recognize and then anticipate the many trips over and under the bridge to Overtown, stopping to gaze out over the river which, depending on the season, is either frozen over or thawing. The reader’s senses stay on high alert: whose car is parked outside the house? Is that smell a rotting turtle beneath the floorboards or the migratory caterpillars baking on the bridge? Are those knocking sounds in the wall bad pipes or evil spirits? Did someone remember to cover the dirty dishes with a cloth tonight? This combination of the ethereal with the commonness of poverty-stricken life on the rez creates a magical effect that lingers well after a story has been finished and the book has been returned to the shelf, likely sandwiched in the perfect spot between Denis Jonson’s Jesus’ Son and Tommy Orange’s There There.
The final story in the collection “The Name Means Thunder” provides the point of telling for the entire book. David, a middle-aged man now more concerned with his cataracts rather than scoring drugs, recalls a specific memory from his teenage years, one that has been warped over time but has persisted as a haunting zombie in his brain. This is the only instance in the collection where Adult David and Young David share the same story, giving it an air of ultimate destiny. By placing this piece at the end of the collection, David’s timeline becomes clearer than ever, and the reader is able to trace back carefully to more fully understand the emotional temperament of his character in previous stories. The final pages urge one to flip back to the beginning, to revisit David at the start, so that one can take in the totality of the emotional torment acquired along the journey. How do the living come back to life? The question ambles on, knocking against the skull, fighting off starvation.