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Spillway

This week, Don reviews "Spillway" by Kim Bradley.

“Spillway,” nine short stories, is Kim Bradley’s debut collection. On first impression, these stories are in the tradition of the tough, neo-gothic, grit lit of Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Tom Franklin and some Barry Hannah. Most are set in Florida, north of Pensacola, and in Conecuh and Wallace County near Bradley’s home town of Monroeville. Life in these stories is hard. The characters are often cold, broke, hungry, lonely, violent and in conflict with an environment full of cottonmouth snakes and alligators, merciless heat and, occasionally, hurricanes.

The stories are hyper-realistic, except when they are not. In the longest and most extended story, “Visitation,” the protagonist, Meredith, decides she MUST go to her dead ex-boyfriend’s visitation. She is not really welcome there. The young man, Tommy, died from falling drunk out of a deer stand in a tree at the family’s hunting camp. “He died alone, a silver-plated whiskey flask by his side.” No one came upon the body for two days.

Tommy’s mother Julia is especially furious because Meredith broke off with Tommy, who moped and languished, for years! It is beyond awkward. Meredith and her friend Gayle literally slip and fall down into “swaths of slick red mud” at the graveside. Later, Tommy’s ghost shows up in her bedroom, “Grinning.” “‘Is it really you?’” she asks. He answers. “’Sure. I mean I’m dead and all, but it’s me.’ His laugh was deep and infectious, unleashed from far, far away.” They chat.

The reader is astonished at Meredith’s lack of astonishment but the next day when she tells Tommy’s mom about this, her reaction is even more amazing. Julia is furious at having been left out. “‘He came to you? To you?’ she shouted. ‘After all I did for that boy. I fed him, clothed him, let him stay here for years. And, he came to you?’” This is not a New Orleans creole story with witchee women and hoodoo. This is a pocket of left-behind white folks deep in the Alabama woods.

There is also a ghost in the story “Alligator.” Set in St. Augustine right after a hurricane, there is destruction and wreckage everywhere. Dean, the protagonist, is camping in his ruined house to prevent looting and his dead wife, Sabra, appears in the yard. The newly reunited couple take long walks among the debris, chatting and picking up what bits of furniture might be useful. There is an alligator and he too has supernatural powers.

These stories are strong, memorable and mostly on the dark side. The central characters are mostly female and when the narrator is male, he is usually forlorn, jobless and drunk, telling of the woman who hurt him and left. I welcome more from Alabama writer Kim Bradley.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.