Note: Arthur Bradford is WINNER of an O. Henry Award and is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker.
“We were paddling our canoes down a remote, slow-moving river, a full day’s travel in either direction from the nearest road, when Otto decided to do something spectacular and stupid. Around a bend we encountered a sandy cliff rising up out of the water. Otto announced that he would climb the cliff and then run down its steep face. We could all take pictures as he descended….[Then] he would launch himself into the river, a down-hill running dive. It was late in the afternoon and we had all been drinking beer and whiskey….”—Georgie, in “Turtleface.”
With an opening story which feels like some bizarre, twisted, and darkly humorous version of Deliverance, O. Henry Award-winner Arthur Bradford turns not just this plot on its head but every other plot in every other story in this collection. These interconnected stories feature a young, naïve speaker, usually identified as “Georgie,” who seems born without a sense of caution, someone who has no ability to predict disasters as he enthusiastically follows his imagination or heart without a glance backward – or forward. Few readers will be able to resist this character, whose heart is in the right place though he lives on a completely different plane from the rest of the world. Even those few main characters who are not specifically identified as “Georgie” resemble Georgie in terms of their personality and behavior, acting the way many of us dreamed of behaving in an earlier, simpler world, long before we grew up and learned to “pay attention,” “think of the future,” and “be careful.” It is the tension between our empathy for Georgie and our frustration with him for his gullibility that keeps the reader entertained and involved, though Georgie is guaranteed to make every parent who reads this book cringe at his actions.
The opening quotation of this review is the opening paragraph of the title story, “Turtleface,” and Otto’s reckless behavior, encouraged by Georgie, along with Tom and two women, is as disastrous as one may expect. Otto’s legs cannot keep up with him as he descends, and, in danger of crashing precipitously onto the beach, he launches himself, full-speed, at the water. He does not come up. Georgie dives in to rescue him and is relieved when Otto breathes. His relief comes too soon – Otto’s nose is smashed, his lip is torn, his face is crushed, he is bleeding profusely, there is no cellphone signal to use to call a helicopter, and they are a day from civilization. Otto has, by chance, hit a small snapping turtle upon landing in the water, breaking its shell while breaking his own face. Torn between his concern for Otto and his sympathy for the innocent turtle, Georgie rescues the turtle, whom he later names “Charlotte,” puts her into a cooler, and brings her with him as the group paddles as fast as possible to get Otto to a doctor. The complications in Georgie’s life multiply exponentially when he gets back to civilization and finds himself blamed for the accident, though most readers will still smile in recognition, despite all Georgie’s traumas.
In the next story, “Cold Feet,” which takes place in an old farmhouse in Burlington, Vermont, Georgie is involved in a “communal living arrangement” with several others like him, and since they have no money, they decide they will be “good to the environment” by not using any fossil fuels for heat during a bitter Vermont winter. Georgie eventually befriends William, an elderly hermit who lives alone in a shack nearby, one with a generator and a TV, which the commune does not allow. Since the old man is a huge Boston Celtics fan in 2008, when the Celtics are in the playoffs for the world championship, he invites Georgie to come to watch the game in his hut. Once again, Georgie cannot resist the chance to play a practical joke, and this time it backfires.
Other stories become a bit more “far out.” “Lost Limbs” features a girl who is missing an arm, a man who hauls discarded Christmas trees who loses his foot in a wood chipper, and a man, furious because they have run over his cat, who decides to punish them both. In “Orderly,” Georgie appears as an assistant to the professionals in charge of the residents of a “mental institution and place for people with mild disabilities.” His grossly unprofessional behavior leads to his termination, though he learns some hard lessons in the process. “The Box” describes Georgie’s ownership of a house which he bought with the insurance money from losing his foot. This house has a huge metal box in the backyard which he is ordered by the government not to touch or remove. Sometimes the box is very hot, sometimes it hisses, and sometimes he hears voices inside, until a big storm changes the picture. One of the funniest stories is that of “Snakebite,” in which a man flags down a car which is late going to a wedding. The man claims to have been bitten by a poisonous snake, and that he needs help. Georgie and his friends pile him into the car and take him to the wedding with them.
In “217-Pound Dog,” which takes place in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, Georgie does copy work for a law firm at night, sneaking off to read in the hall in the middle of the night. His relationship with one of the partners, who is often there very late also, becomes the relationship from hell, and eventually Jim, the partner, and his 217-pound dog become far closer to Georgie than he would like. In “Resort Tik Tok,” Georgie is a desk clerk who learns that for a small sum of money he can rent a beach hut on an island off the coast of Thailand where he can work undisturbed. It is here that the reader learns that Georgie is determined to become a writer of short stories, a hilarious episode in which the reader begins to wonder just how much Georgie might be a stand-in for the author himself.
Each of these stories is obviously written by a young author of enormous originality and talent, and it is difficult to imagine any other author coming up with the sheer number of unexpected, wacky – even bizarre – plot twists that one finds here. Georgie shows the world how much he enjoys being alive, day by day, and every reader will admire him for that. By the end of the collection, readers will be so involved with Georgie and his problems that he becomes “real,” though it is impossible to imagine how he will continue to survive without losing either his enthusiasm or his life as we readers have come to know it.
Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://latenightlibrary.org/
The turtle with the broken shell, like Charlotte in “Turtle Face,” is shown on http://petsfans.com/
William, the hermit, shares his temperamental TV with Georgie in “Cold Feet,” and they rejoice in the play of the Big Three, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen during the Boston Celtics championship win in 2008. Photo from http://www.boston.com/
Jim Tewilliger, one of the partners in the law firm for which Georgie works, drags Georgie to the Carlyle Hotel, along with Jim’s 217-pound dog in the story “The 217-Pound Dog,” with disastrous results. http://www.oyster.com/
In “The Tik Tok,” Georgie goes to a beach hut resort in Thailand to write short stories, though his work ethic is suspect. http://www.nationmultimedia.com