Book Review: Turtle Face and Beyond
by Arthur Bradford
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015
It’s been a long time since Arthur Bradford’s debut collection of short stories, Dogwalker, appeared in 2001. Fifteen years is a considerable stretch even in normal life; in the life of a working writer – where time is measured much like in dog-years (not least because authors share the canine neediness for affirmation and, like canines, tend to be euthanized for cost-cutting reasons toward the end of their lives) – it’s a yawning gap.
Which makes Bradford’s new collection of short stories, Turtle Face and Beyond, so jarring: in its goofy whimsy, oddly dignified diction, unconvincing philosophical underpinnings, and flights of fancy, this is more of a time capsule than a short story collection. Both on a thematic level and on a sentence-by-sentence level, Turtle Face and Beyond reads like it was started the same day Dogwalker was finished.
These latest stories roughly center on a character whose name is Georgie, and the stories in this book chronicle the weird adventures experienced by him and his loose group of friends, starting with the title story “Turtle Face,” in which Georgie’s friend Otto, in order to impress the group, takes a high dive and has the monumental bad luck to strike a turtle (“the size of your average pie”) when he hits the water. Otto’s face is mangled, and in addition to rushing him the nearest hospital, Georgie also makes time to rescue the turtle; “I waded over and fished the creature out of the river,” he tells us. “Its shell was cracked, and I could see tender insides through the gap.” He uses tape to wrap the broken shell, and he calls the animal Charlotte, and the whole thing just keeps rolling on from there:
Against [the veterinarian’s] advice I paid $800 to have an antibiotic IV inserted into the turtle’s small vein. I also learned that it was a female turtle, not a male, as I had for some reason assumed. I named her Charlotte, after an elderly woman I once knew who sort of resembled a turtle. I purchased a plastic children’s wading pool and filled it with rocks, water, and moss-covered tree limbs. This I placed inside my small apartment to provide a habitat for Charlotte. If she was going to die, I reasoned, it would be in relative comfort.
“Turtle Face” has scattered fugitive moments of good compassion for what Otto’s life is like now that he’s disfigured, but there’s never any question about the real thrust of its empathy; the real Turtle Face here is the one who came across it honestly: Charlotte.
There’s an element of emotional numbness at the heart of these stories, the kind of reflexive preference for twee over depth that Bradford perhaps picked up from his association with the folks at McSweeney’s. His main character is a cipher of convenience, being quirky when Bradford needs him to be quirky and being unbelievably oblivious when Bradford needs him to be, as in the opening of the story “Lost Limbs”:
It wasn’t until my second date with Lenore that I discovered one of her arms was missing. Our first meeting had been a blind date, arranged by a friend who had neglected to mention this arm situation. I suppose I’m not a particularly observant person. This is something I’ve been told on a number of occasions. Lenore wore a very well-made prosthesis though, and I believe it was an understandable oversight on my part.
When the narrator then gets his leg caught in a wood chipper (as one does), his response while the machine is grinding off his limb could do efficient stand-in duty for the emotional register running through all these stories: “’Well, shit,’ I said to myself. ‘Who would’ve guessed my day would be turning out like this? Not me!’” If that kind of thing strikes you as the height of drollery, these stories will please you every bit as much (exactly, precisely as much) as did the ones in Dogwalker. If it strikes you as a narrative sacrificing any kind of emotional believability for the sake of cracking up audiences at readings, and if that bothers you, well, this might not be the book for you, because that note of bumbling astonishment is sounded in every one of these stories, as in “The Box,” where the narrator buys a cheap house and is told he’s not legally allowed to do anything about the large box-shaped protrusion on his backyard. When he finally decides to pay it some close attention, he gets a shock:
A few days passed during which the box and I coexisted peacefully, and then, one night, I spotted the shafts of light. They flickered through the vents in the box’s sides. At first, I assumed it was sparks, signs of an impending combustion, and I prepared to leave the premises. But then I saw that it was simply light, a steady stream peaking out from within. I crept up next to the box and was very surprised to hear what sounded like voices coming from inside. People! Underground! There was a group of them down there occupying some cavern to which this box was merely the entrance. For so long I had thought it was just a box!
For pure anything-goes entertainment value, Arthur Bradford’s fiction is tough to beat. The stories in Turtle Face and Beyond swing from one zany premise to the next, always with their young author in complete control of his gimmicks and guffaws, always with a well-timed deployment of one-liners. The book feels like guilty-pleasure recess-reading, and that’s doubtless exactly what it was intended to be, a light-hearted entertainment, a relief from the much more somber fare on bookstore New Release tables. Readers who want that kind of relief will appreciate it, and if times haven’t brightened considerably by 2030, they’ll probably appreciate the next volume as well.