It sounded like a reasonable request…. (A Review of Hunters & Gamblers by Ryan Ridge)

17 Nov

Hunters & Gamblers
by Ryan Ridge
Dark Sky Books, 125pgs, $12

Hunters & Gamblers? Not quite the clever title I expected from Ryan Ridge, the writer I came to follow because of the Ox poems, those strange LOLZ-worthy poems (like these at elimae). However, I’ve read these stories and it’s admittin’ time: I can’t imagine this collection being titled anything else. These pieces tumble around with names and labels and states of being. And boom, an explosion illuminating how a label can affect so much, how a person can be lifted above the junk or, in most of these instances, thrown in a whirlwind of weird and tragic.

Infectious? Is that word a good label? Anyways, once I started, I pulled this thing out of my bag during my lunch break, snuck off during work to read pieces, found myself reading them before bed and having some wicked dreams. Originally, I was gonna write a single-sentence review of this collection, but no no no, not fair to these stories that kicked a hole in my comfort gut and not fair to myself. I’ve been wriggling around for a week now.

But first: that single-sentence review–On these bitter Indiana nights when winter is a bit early, these stories remind me how there are worse places to be, how a safe place can make all the difference, how there are worse people to be.

And here’s more: With superb language and an eye for the right situation, Ridge has crafted stories big and small to remind us of the goodness we have by showing us the ugly. There are labels and then there is life, a often forgotten distinction showcased by Ridge’s method of showing us the banner, then waltzing out the awful and having them/it dance around for us.

Like “Pussy (an Explanation).” It doesn’t get clearer what we are talking about, a boy whose coworkers call him a pussy. And as the story unfolds, from being about the speaker leaving work to get out of skinning deer, opting to take home a female coworker, it quickly unravels and then twists. The speaker, this whole time we learn, has been talking to his son in the story, explaining the elk head with a plated “Pussy” and the revelation that the kid’s mom is that same girl from that night, the one the speaker drove home. And we get it, how a label can collide with a life, like the phrase “jumping off a pier” blazing real once you’re in the mouth of the gator in the water.

Everything after the word becomes reality is shaken up:

Oh, I quit that bullshit job a couple months later, just after deer season. Your mother worked there a little while longer. Mike and Baxter even crashed our wedding. They showed up, called me a pussy, and said they didn’t think I had it in me and they gave us the strangest wedding present—
The mounted elk’s head with the word “pussy” engraved on it?
Yes son. I’m that Pussy. Does that explain things?
Yes, dad. Crystal. Hey, question.
Do you think you and mom will ever get back together?
Hard to say. The ball is in her court. You can tell her I said that.

Or like “After Fall,” a post-invasion story about a family trying to continue on after paratroopers took over. We see the craziness of life without order, or rather a jumbled order, with Girl Scouts selling single cookies for $20 or the women of a family gone, the speaker says to chase wildlife for food (but maybe we know better). Once the umbrella of “stable” government shuts, the power shifts and our comforts and expectations are toppled. The ending (besides an italics section detailing more of the takeover) is what gets me, the men of the family on the floor, asking for divine intervention, seeing how their safety net worked more smoothly when that umbrella was up: “It sounded like a reasonable request, and we were reasonable people, historically speaking. We just didn’t know what was hurtling toward us.”

But this is all to say that Ridge’s collection at once shows us life covered by its cloud of strange, pummeled by its raindrops of ugly, bad weather we call it.

I keep flipping back to the story, “Fuck Shop.” It goes like this:
“Welcome to the fuck shop,” said the old man in the red smock.
“I thought this was Wal-Mart,” I said.
“That’s funny,” he said, “I thought this was America.”

(Reprinted here with the permission of the author)

And that’s it, that’s perfect. If perception is more than a blip, but also a major catalyst for how we behave, also a label stuck to everything we see, also a hand in the back that pushes us forward and maybe down, then these stories are those rare stories that shake us awake, that remind us to stop gambling and hunt something that’ll keep us full, make us warm, keep us safe.

Available from:
Dark Sky Books | Powell’s | Amazon | Amazon Kindle

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