REVIEW: Turtleface and Beyond by Arthur Bradford
by Alexander Norcia
My grandfather’s late sister, Esther, fell within the loose category of people who are often credited with creating a “scene.” She claimed TGI Fridays hoarded the best ketchup in the world, and she once got in a major dispute with management when someone caught her exiting with three bottles of the good stuff smuggled in her purse. When I was in middle school, she backed her 2005 Volvo V70 station wagon out of her driveway, across a two-lane street, and straight into her neighbor’s living room. Before there were cellphones, Esther called my house almost every night to complain about something mundane, and when her name appeared on the caller ID, we all argued about who would answer it. A few years before Esther died, she did ring us up, however, with some actual of sad news: Somebody had run over her mutt, Hennessey, and the culprit had driven away without so much as providing a note. Of course, we were distressed to hear about Hennessey’s death, not only because we quite liked the dog but also we had learned, only hours earlier, that my grandfather had been the one behind the wheel. He phoned my mother, as he did several other immediate relatives, in a frantic plea for rationalization: He hit Hennessey once, and seeing him suffer, he had decided to end his misery by hitting him a second time. For him, upsetting his sister with his direct involvement wasn’t an option. This incident became something of a family secret, and naturally, everyone knew except for Esther. While the manslaughter of a beloved pet soon developed into a crude anecdote, it also came to occupy an uncomfortable space, over time, that made us laugh, made us smile at the bizarre moral issue my grandfather had to face. We felt as sorry for him just as much as we did for Esther, and as we were implicitly involved in the ridiculous drama, we had no right to criticize him.
An onlooker in the title story of Arthur Bradford’s second collection, Turtleface and Beyond, is left with a similar predicament. After he witnesses his friend, Otto, sprint down the face of a steep cliff, dive into a river, and smash his face on the shell of a turtle, he must choose what to do with the harmed creature (all the while his pseudo-daredevil pal remains unconscious): Should he abandon it? Should he, at another’s suggestions, let it die and then stir it into a soup? Should he duct tape the crack and bring the animal back home, nursing and praying for its survival, hiding it from the probable disapproval of his knocked-out buddy?
He makes, as do many of Turtleface and Beyond’s characters, a harried and seemingly well-intentioned decision, and Bradford, as we all learned to do with my grandfather’s confession, never passes any judgment. Instead, Bradford challenges the reader into becoming a smiling bystander, forgoing condemnation, and while his work is surreal yet understated in its strangeness (blurbing respectively for his first collection, Dogwalker, Zadie Smith labeled it “the mutt’s nuts,” and David Foster Wallace as “a book that’s like being able to have lunch with the part of you that dreams at night”), it’s most to his credit that he maintains the surrealism and strangeness without ever being disparaging. With Bradford’s hilarious and whimsical prose, it feels as if I’m reading a string of family-esque secrets, the silly actions of good people and poor choices that, barring being a character in, say, a Victorian romance, you can hold with your closest relatives without much consequence.
How else can I explain my amusement in finishing “The LSD and the Baby,” a narrative that chronicles, as the title suggests, a group of drug-users and a baby (who may or may not have consumed poisonous berries in the woods)? How else can I qualify my utter glee after reading “Resort Tik Tok,” a tragedy of a young author who travels to Thailand to write but becomes much too busy fantasizing about having sex with the resort owner’s wife? Bradford’s absence of judgment prevails, as it does throughout his work, when his characters are confronted with an ethical dilemma, often brought on by animals: In one case, William, a hermit in Vermont, misses when shooting a porcupine and worries “the creature [is] out for revenge”; in another, Willis, suffering from a snakebite, convinces a group en route to a wedding (well, at least one person in a group en route to a wedding) to bring him along to see if any of the guests might be doctors.
The narrator, Georgie, acts as a tonal link throughout the stories in Turtleface and Beyond. Georgie is a man that can be best expressed as being exceptionally unexceptional. He exists, much like Sam Lipsyte’s loser-laced “Gary,” the recurring, peripheral character who stands, at most times, as the protagonist’s best friend in Homeland, among others. Gary is a slightly more extreme version of the narrator, a reminder of what he could become with perhaps one more poor decision (for instance, Lewis “Teabag” Miner writes in his alumni newsletter that “Gary is a guy you might remember… though judging from back editions of Catamount Notes, most don’t”). Georgie moves throughout the book in a similar way to Gary — for him, nothing ever ends neatly, or nothing is ever fully resolved — and he seems to float from place-to-place, popping in-and-out, without much overarching change or emotional consequence. Georgie remains relatively the same, and no story of his, in any great effect, has a bearing on the others.
In “Travels with Paul,” Georgie hitches a ride to the West Coast with the cousin of a former lover. He flees to Pittsburgh after they commit an act of unintended arson in the home of a woman whom Paul insists is an old friend. We’re not sure whether or not Georgie makes it across the country (he probably doesn’t) and most, if not all, of the stories end similarly, peaking with a degree of uncertainty. In “Wendy, Mort, and I,” Georgie shouts up the stairs to his ex-girlfriend, though it isn’t certain she even hears him.
The collection is, in other words, episodic, and with the exception of Georgie’s voice, not much else carries throughout the whole, other than the most ridiculous of details. In “Lost Limbs,” for example, Georgie loses the lower-half of his leg after sticking it into an operating wood chipper (“Who would’ve guessed my day would be turning out like this?”). In “The Box,” which has nothing to do with his being an amputee and all to do with destroying a mysterious structure in his backyard, Georgie comments, “Earlier that year I’d lost my foot in a wood-chipper accident.” Chronologically, it’s logical (“The Box” comes after “Lost Limbs”), but the missing leg functions as a comical nod to consistency rather than an allusion loaded with meaning. It’s slightly cartoonish, and I was reminded, often, of the unacknowledged death-and-rebirth of South Park’s Kenny. Perhaps I did so because Bradford directed the Emmy-nominated documentary 6 Days to Air, an inside look at the organized chaos of putting together an entire South Park episode in a less than a week, but it could also be because he has, like his friends Trey Parker and Matt Stone, created an absurd and satiric world all his own.
Bradford’s professional life centers on the disabled; he is the co-director of Portland’s Camp Jabberwocky, a residential camp for men and women with disabilities. He created How’s Your News?, a former television series and feature film that focused on a group of reporters with developmental disabilities. It’s evident that much of his background shows on the page. As in Dogwalker, many of the characters of Turtleface and Beyond suffer from some sort of handicap or unfortunate deformity. In addition to the frequent appearance of animals, the grappling with disabilities is the most blatant element of Bradford’s fiction. In “Orderly,” Georgie feels guilty about flirting — and starting an affair — with a woman in the psych ward where he works. In “217-Pound Dog,” Georgie tries to help an unraveling lawyer with his splintering marriage, all the while dealing with the attorney’s erratic behavior and his abnormally large Newfoundland and Irish wolfhound mix, Boots. While much of Bradford’s success does arise from his sincere ability to avoid criticism of his characters, there’s also an odd sweetness to his words. However misguided, there’s something particularly humane about Georgie trying to rehabilitate a turtle in children’s wading pool in his apartment. There’s something clearly moving about him struggling to break his dog out of the kennel.
Bradford has, in short, taken immense care in constructing his universe, and he also appears, as Georgie and his friends in “Turtleface,” to be the member of “a group of people in no particular hurry.” In Farrar, Straus, and Giroux’s “Work in Progress blog,” Bradford addresses “what, exactly,” he has “been doing for the past fourteen years.” It’s a question he has been “anticipating.” and it’s probably not an unfair one. Dogwalker was released to acclaim in 2001, and his only other major publication since was Benny’s Brigade (2012), a children’s book. Yet despite the gap of more than a decade, Turtleface and Beyond arrives as if it’s a seamless extension of its predecessor, as if it’s a mere continuation than a grand aesthetic advancement. In lieu of “Catface,” a character of Dogwalker’s opening story whose flat face resembles that of a cat, we now have “Turtleface.” But none of this is to say that Bradford has floundered.
He has, instead, simply given us more secrets and, as is often the case, a reason to want more.
[Editor’s note: read Arthur Bradford’s “The Box” in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.]
by Arthur Bradford