On occasion, news of the work of a previously unknown young writer streaks across the literary firmament like a blazing meteor. Fueled by the hype and overwrought excesses of the publishing industry’s star-making machinery, the young author is proclaimed to be sui generis, having depicted the world in unique, brilliant and insightful ways. Very occasionally, this hype is justified. Such is the case with Morgan Talty’s collection of connected short stories, Night of the Living Rez.
Talty’s stories happen on and around the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation in northern Maine, and in their telling the author subtly alludes to the impact of being part of a community that has survived in the face of five centuries of genocide and oppression. Following in the tradition of Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Tommy Orange and other indigenous authors, Talty conveys the repercussions of this oppression by describing the day-to-day life and relationships that fill his world. It is a place inextricably entwined with nature and mystery and fiercely loyal connections to friends and family and community. Always present is the debilitating effect of economic insecurity. Yet there is also a sense of resiliency, a proclamation that, We are still here and we’re not going anywhere, because this is our home. The motivation is simple survival and a striving to keep traditions alive.
We are treated to tales of a buried jar that holds an old curse, and stories of drug deals gone bad and the discovery of a friend in the woods passed out with his hair frozen into the snow. There’s also an ill-fated attempt, inspired by Antiques Roadshow, to rob the tribal museum of items that can be sold to buy drugs. In the course of the stories, our narrator, David, grows from a young boy to a young man. Hanging out in the woods and the swamp with his crew, and back at home with his makeshift and dysfunctional family, David is driven by the desire to know and establish his place in the world.
Talty has been compared to Denis Johnson, whose own stories of addiction and dysfunction, while sometimes difficult to read, are also indelible portraits of the unheard and invisible underclass that populates much of society. It is the exiled and repressed tribe residing on the northern Maine rez that Talty gives voice to in Night. Their indomitable spirit in the face of generations of struggle, including the despair and dysfunction suffered by the latest generation, depicted in these stories, is the message at the book’s heart.
Fellow writers have been rapturous in their praise. “It is difficult to be so honest, and funny, and sad, at once, in any kind of work,” one wrote. Another describes the stories as “an indelible portrait of a family in crisis, and an incisive exploration of the myriad ways in which the past persists in haunting the present.” Yet another author points to the stories’ optimistic view that “for all of our failures, we never stop doing what we can to provide each other hope.”
Talty is an alumnus of the University of Southern Maine’s prestigious Stonecoast MFA program. In his acknowledgements he offers gratitude to the program “for being such a stellar place to grow as a writer. … Without this program, I would not be where I am today. It afforded me the time to write and develop my craft.” He specifically thanks acclaimed writer Rick Bass for his role as a mentor. Fittingly, Bass writes, “I am not predicting literary success for Morgan Talty, I am guaranteeing it.”