A Way Around the Caterpillars: Review of Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty

A Way Around the Caterpillars: Review of Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty

Jeremy Brett

Under Review:
Night of the Living Rez. Morgan Talty. Tin House Books, July 2022.

Despite the horror movie title, there appears on the surface to be nothing particularly speculative about the powerful new short story collection from Penobscot (Panawhaspkek) Nation author Morgan Talty. Night of the Living Rez ostensibly chronicles the vagaries – harshnesses, joys, and modes of simple survival – of life on and around the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation in Maine. The collection might be better defined, in fact, as a novel-in-vignettes, since the work centers on a single figure, young David. We follow David at various ages, ranging from middle childhood to his “present” as a generally unemployed methadone addict trying to cope with and live life within the everyday indignities and stresses of reservation existence.

But in another sense, this is something of a ghost story: David is continually haunted by the spirits of intergenerational trauma that infect not only his family but also those of his friends and other members of his nation. He is also plagued by intense isolation from his people as a whole; as he notes,

but those Natives who bought 4K Ultra DVDs or fresh white doilies had cars, wouldn’t be taking the bus like me or Fellis did each day to the methadone clinic. But we had sacred grounds where sweats and peyote ceremonies happened once a month, except since I had chosen to take methadone, I was ineligible to participate in Native spiritual practice, according to the doc on the rez.

Natives damning Natives.

Through David’s eyes, rez life is a cycle of existence in an endless present, where the burden of living is a constant struggle that he and his family and friends need to keep reliving and refighting. David’s mom defines life at one point in the collection as feeling

like the whole world is warped, like something is off balance that will never be balanced again. And guess what? It won’t ever be balanced again. Every morning’s deformed, the day so close to spinning out of control, but you have to find your footing, your own balance.

She’s specifically discussing grief here, but that observation applies equally to everyday rez life. David finds his own balance – or tries to – with beer, cigarettes, aimless interactions with his friends, and occasional moments of introspection that only deepen his feelings of alienation:

How’d we get here? That’s Fellis’s question, but it’s mine, too. How’d we get here? 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 I had been. I left a lot of things behind. Or maybe that’s not it – maybe it’s that a lot of things left me behind. Friends. Family. Relationships. The future.

And soon after this thought, he asks himself, “I wonder if How’d we get here? is the wrong question. Maybe the right question is How do we get out of here? Maybe that’s the only question that matters.”

In this way, the book is, in fact, something of a horror novel, or at least a nightmare, which David is continually trying to escape, or to wake up. The rez becomes a haunted house where the windows are shut, the doors locked, and the various ghosts – of Native pasts, of Native presents – swirl endlessly around, wailing and moaning and making it impossible for people to find peace or to move forward. People on the rez feel trapped. At the end of one of the book’s sections, “In A Field of Stray Caterpillars”, David thinks back to an earlier moment in the day when he and his friend Fellis encountered a highway littered with dead, squashed caterpillars, whose rotting smell infects the entire area. As David leaves Fellis’ house to drive over to his girlfriend’s, “I wondered if there was a way around those dead caterpillars and the smell of shit, of bait. But I knew there wasn’t.” Ultimate escape from the past does not seem like a realistic possibility in David’s world.

Despite this, Living Rez is, fortunately for the reader, not some kind of grimdark, Cormac McCarthy-esque slog of endless depression. Nor is it a simplistic tale of eternal Native sadness and poverty. Talty is a deeply honest writer who understands the complexity and multidimensionality of human life, which has moments of joy and positive human connection. For example, at the conclusion of one story, “Smokes Last,” David is coming off one of his frequent instances of tension with his mother, fueled in part by his continual thievery of her cigarettes. He returns to his house to find a present from his mother awaiting him in his bedroom.

I flicked on my bedroom light, and when I sat on the bed I saw it.

I got up. On top of my dresser stood a pack of cigarettes on top of a note. I held them. Winston 100s. I picked up the note. Mom’s handwriting.

Make them last, it read.

I folded the note and put it in my pocket with the news article. I undressed, turned my light off, and crawled under the covers. A small breeze slipped under the cracked window behind me and carried with it the sound of my mother’s laughter.

No haunted house is a closed system, no zombie apocalypse is inescapable, and likewise, the rez is not a place where humans fail to behave or express themselves using the full range of emotion and feeling. The rez is truly a living place, where people don’t only exist or survive, but experience the fullness of life. Talty deftly avoids the toxic stereotype of Natives as a permanently crippled, depressed class of people soaked in alcohol and despair. Yes, negative features of rez life are prominently featured – to not do so would be an unrealistically and disrespectfully sunny view of Native life and history – but alongside these are moments of real tenderness, love, and familial connection. Night of the Living Rez is a powerful testament to the complexity of human existence, set among a people whose lives and histories have been deliberately obscured by the colonizing forces of the past.  

Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an archivist and librarian at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly listing. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB reviews. It was edited by Adam McLain and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.

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