Ember Days

By Nick Ripatrazone


Braddock Avenue Books
April 2015

Reviewed by Gabrielle Pastorek


In a recent issue of Necessary Fiction's "Research Notes," which features authors' own notes on their writing and research processes, Nick Ripatrazone discusses the extensive research that went into his new story collection, Ember Days. The title story, set in 1975 New Mexico, required extensive research on the history and fallout of nuclear testing "to the point of obsession," as Ripatrazone describes.

After having completely immersed himself in this overwhelming breadth of research, which extended as far back as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Ripatrazone came away with a new outlook on his writing process:

My research had discovered more symbolism than I could pack into one story, but there was one detail I couldn't shake: a bomb named Trinity had been tested at a town whose name meant "help"—and whose previous residents had rejected an earlier call for war. As the drafts piled and piled and were tossed, I started shaving the abundant research, the forced details, and instead allowed the spirit of that symbol to inform the story. Readers didn't want a history lesson; they wanted action and characterization, with history as the backdrop.

This delicate interweaving of historical detail and rich, fictional characterization is certainly evident throughout the collection. In "Ember Days," the devastating destruction of nuclear fallout is integrated into the characters and scenery of the dry, severe New Mexico desert. Oritz, who lost his wife to the bomb, wears the devastation "like the indelible wrinkles that pinched his hands." Even he, a large, sturdy man who has endured the desert all of his life, cannot overcome the bomb and its physical and emotional residue.

Much of the dynamic intrigue of the story comes when Oritz and Blake, the scientist involved with the creation of the bomb, embark on a journey through parts of the desert where not even their pickup truck can travel, in search of buried money and the possible remnants of the bomb. Although they are obvious rivals, Oritz and Blake need each other if they are to succeed—Oritz knows the desert and Blake knows the bomb.

This pairing, of course, meets countless external adversaries, but the worst seems to be rooted in each man's debilitating internal struggles—Blake's guilt and Oritz's grief. As Blake starts to notice, Oritz seems to become less and less human as their journey continues, his crazed state of loss wearing him down: 

Oritz's sweat had blurred the tattoo of Mary on his back. His skin was part red, part butter-golden. He held the corroded knife high. Flies pinched his exposed armpit. A black substance caked his shoulders. Between dreams, Blake remembered seeing Oritz wrapped in the deer's hide, spinning in place. Then pissing in the dirt and turning his heel in the new mud.

Similarly, Blake's eyes are swollen shut from the sun, and without Oritz's survival instincts, Blake likely would not be able to make it past the first night in the desert. But despite working together in an attempt to right horrifying wrongs, Blake and Oritz seem frozen in time, unable to find solace.

In fact, most of Ripatrazone's characters suffer the same fate. Despite their best efforts to overcome loss and despair, they remain stuck in a cycle of haunting memories.

In "Alameda," a couple struggles to overcome the death of their young daughter, which is further complicated by the fact that their remaining daughters know nothing of their lost sister. In a constant attempt to shield the girls from their sorrow, parents Scott and Mary limit their mourning to Saturdays, when the girls are out of the house. Much like the shadow of the atomic bomb left in the desert of New Mexico, Scott and Mary's grief manifests itself in the physical world around them. Every Saturday, Mary's "screams went unheard. They settled into the wallpaper and hardwood. The tractor idled in the yard, steaming, wasting gas."

No matter what distractions might allow their minds to stray from grief during the week—dinner with friends, a college visit—there will always be another upcoming Saturday of wailing wallpaper and idling tractors to remind Scott and Mary of their irreparable loss.

Then, in stories like "The Cribbing Collar," even when a character gets what he thinks he wants, happiness is impossible. This story, one of the shortest of the collection, highlights the tension between two brothers who have no one left but each other, but who cannot manage to have a relationship beyond pushing the other further away. Neither the narrator nor his brother, Boone, can find contentment, even upon their reunion when Boone returns home from military service. The last lines of the story—"As for me, I was going nowhere. Still."—fully embody the cycle of loss and unfulfillment that most of the collection's characters are up against.

If there is a relief from these heavy losses, though, it's in "The Good Children Hunt." As the title lets on, this one is more playful in its language detailing the inner monologue of a young boy tagging along on a bear hunt. Of course, the story is not without its conflicts, but this one is centered on the boy's grappling with a sternly religious grandfather and an obnoxious hunting guide.

Whether playfully humorous or forebodingly bleak, Ember Days encompasses Ripatrazone's deft mixture of historical detail and fictional spirit that work together to transport the reader into this surreal world that he's created. These are the types of stories that made my tongue dry when Blake and Oritz are searching for water in the desert; that made my chair convulse with sadness at the loss of Mary's daughter.

I can sense the remnants of the author's research, his vast knowledge of every historical aspect surrounding these nuclear blasts and fallouts that are felt subtly, yet consistently, in the background of these stories. Perhaps Ripatrazone said it best himself in his "Research Notes," simply stating that "research is for the writer; story is for the reader."

Ember Days delivers strong, well-crafted stories that tap into that underlying primal struggle to survive that connects people like Blake and Oritz, and ultimately connects reader and writer in an ongoing harmony.