In “Burn,” the first story in Morgan Talty’s debut, “Night of the Living Rez,” readers are introduced to protagonist and narrator Dee as he is walking home to the Penobscot Reservation after attempting to buy pot in Overtown, Maine (likely a fictionalized Old Town). When Dee hears a voice in the woods and goes to investigate, he finds his friend, Fellis, lying on the icy ground, his hair frozen solid into the snow beneath and behind him. The situation is both hilarious and pathetic, and Dee finds that the only way to free his friend is by cutting off the trapped hair. Fellis objects at first, asking Dee to get boiling water and loosen the snow that way. After Dee points out that the water would chill by the time he got back to the woods, Fellis “was quiet. As if something walked around or among us, the ice cracked and echoed somewhere in the swamp. The moon shone bright, and I looked. There was nobody but us.”

This is just the first of many haunted and haunting moments in the aptly named “Night of the Living Rez,” a clear play on the zombie classic, “Night of the Living Dead.” The Penobscot Reservation lives on an island, and the narrator’s mother tells him that “the whole Island was haunted, that years and years and years ago our people used this place as a graveyard, that even late at night she heard Goog’ooks tapping on the walls. Mom told me not to be scared” of those evil spirits. For the most part, he isn’t – but the effects of their history, both recent or ancient, continue to affect him and his family.

All the stories in the collection are narrated by the same character. He goes by Dee as an adult, but his given name is David, as we learn in the pieces narrated when he is young. The second story, “In a Jar” goes back all the way to David’s arrival on the island as a child, after his mother leaves his father and drives through the night to the reservation where she herself grew up. From there, the stories alternate between adult Dee and child, tween and teenager David, except for the last, which is narrated from his perspective of a much older Dee waiting for a consultation about his cataracts.

In other words, portions of David’s entire life story are laid out in front of us in this collection, but they are not arranged chronologically, nor by any strict cause-and-effect relationship. Instead, they’re a mosaic, full of intentional gaps that echo the ways our memories work, as well as the ways stories change and morph and lose or accumulate details as we tell them.

Those gaps are another ghostly element of the book. For instance, in the story “Safe Harbor,” Dee brings his mother cigarettes to the crisis stabilization unit she’s gone to, and she tells him she hasn’t been able to sleep for days:

“She doesn’t look it, though. Her short gray hair is spiked. She’s wearing little gold earrings. She’s dressed nice. Casual. A white T-shirt and black yoga pants and white sneakers. She doesn’t do yoga. All the white on her makes her look more Native, more Indian (she hates that word – Indian). But nothing makes her look young. She’s Native, and she has trauma. So do I – I’m the one who saw it – but she thinks she has more. She doesn’t say that, but she thinks it.”


What is that “it” that Dee saw? What is that specific element of trauma that’s being referenced? Only later in the collection are we able to put the pieces together and see the whole.

On the way, readers are treated to Talty’s beautiful writing, the seamless interweaving of Penobscot cultural practices and tales that color his narrator’s life (even as he’s barred from certain ceremonies due to his methadone use), and the achingly moving relationships and conflicts of each individual story. In “Food for the Common Cold,” for instance, a 12-year-old David finds himself being mistaken for his long-deceased great-uncle by his grandmother, who is sick, not “cough-cough sick, the way some old people got before they slid over to the other side like a pack of smokes. Well – maybe she was cough-cough sick, but not in her lungs. The cough came from her brain, from below the soft gray stuff, burrowed deep in tissue, something tickling her there in an indescribable way.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of Talty’s writing is just how much it shies away from neat and tidy resolutions to the characters’ friction, whether internal or between one another: addictions are treated but return, or are replaced with other substances; characters fight, sometimes physically, but come together soon after anyway, unable to cut each other off due to familiarity and love; horrors occur, but humor exists alongside them. “Night of the Living Rez” is a triumph of fiction that values each and every one of its flawed characters deeply and that spins its stories in such a way that invites an immediate reread.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and author of the novel “All My Mother’s Lovers.”

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