Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“Little did I know that that book would force me underwater to gaze at sharks through Plexiglas portholes and contemplate one hundred suicides while watching outlaws sing karaoke in the lounge by beer-light,” muses a voice in Ryan Ridge’s sometimes too-quirky collection of short pieces, giving a sense of the style and speed and tone of the whole, the segue from sharks in all their cartilage and concreteness, to suicides, somewhat abstract and lacking in detail, then the lounge scene, lit and with some distant music, a trace of a trope from an old west constellation or set of stock types. Bullets are a frequent concern in these pages, and prisoners, the notions or emotional landscapes of places like Texas, Denver International Airport, etc. But while Ridge is strongest with stray details—a floor covered in losing scratch-off tickets, for instance—and can hit an inspired note with the very sort of progression of images seen above, from shark tank to karaoke bar, this gambit doesn’t always work. At its worst, Hunters & Gamblers is tedious (see the drafty political dialogue with a Girl Scout) and seems too smugly self-amused to wield an editing scalpel. Such judgment is subjective, sure; there are those who can’t stomach Mark Leyner because he seems to be just so many pages of the same old shtick. I couldn’t escape the comparison, here, but Hunters is a slight book and can spoil otherwise promising beginnings with what feels like a lazy turn. Consider the tale of a man who “ran guns in Alabama, sold speed to fishermen and football freaks in forgotten aspects of Florida, died briefly in a Memphis motel when his heart stopped at a shot of methadone, returned to Jesus, but quickly back to the wrong side of the law,” etc. As clichéd as a song, and therefore as ripe for refreshing, making new again with sharp particulars and a tidal pull of prose. But Ridge drops the idea almost as soon as he begins—less a piece of “flash” fiction than a scribble—abandoning it with a pat conclusion about Jesus and the South, neither revelatory nor satisfying nor worth quoting. There’s a blue page (“My Blue Period”), and a string of curses (“She Left”), and these are clever little conceptual jokes, if seemingly already-read, but the book needs much more than frosting, much more than a showcase of heavy-handed imagery (“Chapter 11”), or a toying engagement with a scenario (“Shaky Hands & All”).
But, again, the Ridge formula works, strongly, in certain moments, lathering up for a blade with passages like “The streets sewn with Christmas lights, carolers serenading parking meters. Runoff from the slaughterhouse drips into the sewer. There is blood in every brain. ‘Teach me the meaning of meaning,’ she said, but I could not.” or “It was the best of times, it was the Patty Hearst of times. It was an age of amateur expert analysts quarreling over the quasi-dilemmas of prepubescent adult children shot naked—on private beaches—by the cruel panoptical lenses of tabloid jackals.” or “After the severance package, I returned to the armpit of the nation, rented a mild-rise room overlooking an anonymous graveyard and got to taking things in stride. The city was a factory on strike. The streets—named after sunken battleships, notorious conmen, and other tragedies—were lined with picketers, glass, hubcaps. Everywhere I went somebody had spray-painted something sad and poignant.” It’s just that the blade, then, never comes. Lather and frosting and light play, puns, a switch from this to that, a pulling of a thread out and out and out—that is all we get here, in this little collection. A broken drum machine gets referenced, and footnotes in the margins “in broken Cyrillic,” and various ways of piling words on an idea, rephrasing a conceit (“Let us ponder whatever else they pondered way back when the preponderance of evidence resided in thatched ancestral cottages as the great, great grandfathers of muckrakers cleaned their fingernails by primitive candlelight.”), then there is some dancing, with no point to it, which would be fine if we, as readers, could catch the beat, but ultimately there’s something insular about this approach, as if this is Ryan Ridge’s book by and for Ryan Ridge only, and despite the startling way some passages—especially at the opening of stories—grab you fast, the rest involves a letting go, a letting down.
Official Ryan Ridge Web Site
Official Dark Sky Books Web Site