Book review

“How’d we get here?” asks David, the narrator of “Night of the Living Rez,” Morgan Talty’s debut collection of linked short stories. “I’m starting to think that each time I ask it, each time I consider an answer, I wind up farther away from where I should be, from where I was.”

Where David was, and where he is now, are both pretty far from happiness. He grew up mostly on the Penobscot Nation reservation in Maine, raised by his mother, with some halfhearted assistance from her boyfriend, Frick. They didn’t have much, and their lives were marked by a string of tragedies.

His adulthood isn’t much better. He spends a lot of time with his friend Fellis; when they’re not making daily visits to the methadone clinic, they’re watching TV, drinking, popping pills, anything to numb their boredom and pain. So how’d they get there?

Illustration by Jenny Kwon

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The collection’s second story, “In a Jar,” ominously sets the stage for what follows. A young David has just moved with his mother to the reservation; while trying to retrieve a lost toy, he finds “a glass jar filled with hair and corn and teeth.” His mother explains it’s been left at the house “to hurt me. To hurt us.”

And pain does indeed follow. His older sister, Paige, suffers a pregnancy loss; later, she disappears, “leaving behind only a note that read she’d lost something and that she was off to find it.”

Talty depicts the relationship between David and Paige perfectly — the siblings clearly care for each other; it’s evident beneath the bickering and the long periods when they don’t see each other.

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David’s mother has her own issues. In “Safe Harbor,” she finds herself in a crisis stabilization unit for “the twelfth time in the past three months.” David has brought her the cigarettes she can’t live without, but they’re a distraction from the fact that she hasn’t been able to sleep in days. The story ends with both mother and son experiencing terrifying medical emergencies; it’s almost excruciating to read, but it’s undeniably powerful, and, in its own way, beautiful.

David himself hits something like rock bottom in “Half-Life” and “Earth, Speak.” In the first story, desperate for pills, he burglarizes his grandmother’s house, aware of what he’s become, but driven by his own addiction. In the second, he watches as Fellis savagely beats a troubled acquaintance; after the man is “barely breathing,” David steals a bottle of Klonopin from his home. The stories are as effective, and as brutal, as a literary one-two punch can be.

Talty’s prose is flawless throughout; he writes with a straightforward leanness that will likely appeal to admirers of Thom Jones or Denis Johnson. But his style is all his own, as is his immense sense of compassion. “Night of the Living Rez” is a stunning look at a family navigating their lives through crisis — it’s a shockingly strong debut, sure, but it’s also a masterwork by a major talent.

“Night of the Living Rez: Stories”

Morgan Talty, Tin House Books, 296 pp., $16.95

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