Book Review : Ryan W. Bradley - Nothing But the Dead and Dying (2015)
Nothing But the Dead and Dying is the latest short story collection from Ryan W. Bradley, author of Code for Failure and Winterswim, which were both part of my year-end favorites lists on the year of their publication. He might not be a household name in American literature but I'm a fan of the guy. Nothing But the Dead and Dying actually is the SECOND collection he's published but it's my first experience with Bradley's short story and it was quite different from what I expected. I was expecting Ryan W. Bradley gloomy and minimalistic vignettes, but was treated to a sweeping existentialist portrait of the Alaskan wilderness. It's great, up to standards with Bradley's work in every way, but this IS quite different from his usual output.
Domestic struggle, working class concerns and existential drifting are the overarching themes of Nothing But the Dead and Dying. Two of my favorite stories in that regard were Valley of the Moon and The Convergence of Contact which are polar opposites that yet have one common trait: overwhelmed male protagonists who let the pressures of adult age corner them and change their personality. Nolan, the protagonist of Valley of the Dead, through the pressure of fatherhood and substance abuse and Sam, the protagonist of The Convergence of Contact, through the soulless grind of working on the road for UPS. These two stories captured the emotional scope of Nothing But the Dead and Dying admirably well. Everybody drifts at least a little in the Alaskan wilderness.
Glaciers is the story that seems to have stuck with most readers. While it had a Fassbinderesque charm to it, I thought it was too melodramatic for my own taste. Bradley's tone is on point, but his characters seem to exist within a universe where only their domestic tragedy exists and if Nothing But the Dead and Dying makes a greater point it's that there's no beginning and no end in Alaska, that fatality is a choice as long as you're breathing. Other stories I liked were Haul Road, Love and Death in the Moose League and WEST, which I appreciated for their aesthetic merits mostly. WEST was the most interesting of all three for it tackled the difficult subject of teenage male aggression in school. It was perhaps my favorite story of the collection after Valley of the Moon and The Convergence of Contact. Ryan W. Bradley has a knack for portraying the extremes with gracefulness and subtlety.
Now, I want to stress how different Nothing But the Dead and Dying is from Ryan W. Bradley's previous work. Bradley is, first and foremost, a minimalist writer and while his short stories technically comply with the definition of minimalist literature, Nothing But the Dead and Dying is much more conventional than Code for Failure and Winterswim. The elephant in the room here is Raymond Carver who Bradley gets closer to than ever in this collection. The depictions of quiet and heavy domestic downfalls, the raw and underplayed narrative honesty and his portrayal of the unpredictability of the human heart are only second to the giant of American literature. What differentiates Nothing But the Dead and Dying from Carver worshiping is the overarching portrait of the Alaskan spirit Bradley draws from a story to another. They are existential exiles looking for meaning, direction and whatever else they hope to find in terrible weather and solitude.
There you have it. Ryan W. Bradley is very much a minimalist writer but it would be too simple to stash him in that category alone. Minimalism would merely describe his writing style and he has considerably more to offer than his aesthetics. Bradley's a creative, genre-bending presence that's tough to pigeonhole in the landscape of contemporary literature. He's a tragedian and an existentialist with a taste for the extremes. While it's not very present in Nothing But the Dead and Dying, Winterswim had fascinating layers of symbolism and surrealism to the minimalist and existential cornerstones of Ryan W. Bradley's writing. The amorphous nature of Bradley's writing is why he's fascinating to me, but it's probably why he's not a household name yet. Mainstream publishing's never been fond of authors that aren't easy to define. I still stand by my word though. Ryan W. Bradley is one of the most compelling, original and unpredictable voices in contemporary literature.