Hunters & Gamblers

By Ryan Ridge


Dark Sky Books
July 2011

Reviewed by John Shortino


Ryan Ridge's debut story collection Hunters & Gamblers is a grim, bleakly funny, constantly surprising view of a kind of alternate America, one in which megachurch pastors import coke-addicted centaurs to serve as mascots, girl scouts extort would-be customers, and the Battle of Sacramento was fought between hippies and a paramilitary group. This is not to say that the world his characters inhabit is completely removed from reality: there are threads that run through several of these stories, like high unemployment and the loneliness of a country that has lost its ideals, that only become more familiar because they are highlighted by surreal details. 

 Ridge's sentences are dizzying, so well built that they almost necessitate an immediate second reading: "I drank my dinner with terrible goodwill, undertipped the overaggressive waiter, and struggled into the darkness of this underimagined place." Ridge packs so much into a few words, so many sounds and ideas bouncing off one another. The writing is lively, though, and the stories rarely seem weighed down by these sentences. Ridge simply pulls you along to the next line, where you know you will be knocked back again.

The stories in Hunters & Gamblers tend to circle around similar themes, but in content and style, each piece is surprising. A story might be presented as a series of questions and answers, while another might read like a piece of prose poetry. There are several stories that are made of single paragraphs. A longer piece, "Tomahawk Cuts Rain," is told, or "considered," as a series of alternate histories:

Do you remember a time when the Declaration of Independence was nothing more than a wadded up draft that Thomas Jefferson kicked around during giddy nights of reflection in the afterglow parlor at Monticello, typically after an amorous hayride with Sally Hemmings' abolitionist hair dresser--the two necking beneath the goldenrod flush of an Old Dominion sunset's dying embers?

At the center of the book is a novella, "Holiest of Holies," which revolves around a character named Kilroy, the son of an imprisoned Theodore Roosevelt impersonator jailed for robbing tollbooths. Kilroy works at a megachurch, which Ridge presents as a compound complete with a football stadium and sniper towers. He is in debt, running a "Parable Power Hour" aimed at converting a small group of drunks. This information is conveyed in the first three pages, and then things get strange, with the introduction of a centaur who seems to live on cocaine (which the pastor prefers to call "Centaur Food") and a scandal involving William McKinley's descendant and a possible Satanic pregnancy.         

At times, I found myself thinking of some of the stories as jokes. One piece, titled "She Left," is a single line: "Dammit. Dammit. Shit. Dammit. Shit. Fuck." The next page is covered in blue ink, a solid rectangle that takes up most of the page; "MY BLUE PERIOD" is written inside the rectangle in white type. And these jokes, most of the time, work as explorations of language or a particular idea. Short pieces like "After the Thrill" seem written purely for the enjoyment of language, the strange juxtapositions between sounds and images:

He ran guns in Alabama, sold speed to fishermen and football freaks in forgotten aspects of Florida, died briefly in a Memphis motel when his heart stopped at a shot of methadone, returned to Jesus, but quickly back to the wrong side of the law, hot-wired an old Honda outside Holly Springs, eased down to the Big Easy for Easter, where he promptly died of a heart attack on a waterbed in the back room of a coke den, though unlike Jesus and the South, he would not rise again.

There are a few moments where the same combination of wit and surreal imagery that propels Hunters & Gamblers also causes it to stumble. In some of the longer stories in particular, the revelation of more and more bizarre elements can feel belabored, like Ridge is throwing details in to see what he can get away with. But because most of the stories are brief and fast-moving, the book never seems stuck in a particular rut for too long, moving on to another story, and more complex and inventive sentences to read and come back to.

Ryan Ridge's vision of America, through each these twenty-four stories, is dark and more than a little sinister, but it is a place I would visit again, if only to see how the author crafts such incredible sentences and such resonant images from the cheap motels, war zones and sordid history where these stories take place.