Night of the Living Rez



By Morgan Talty

Tin House, 278 pages.





Night of the Living Rez is the debut work from Penobscot author Morgan Talty. It consists of 12 linked short stories narrated by David—nicknamed Dee–as a youth, an adolescent, and a young man. It is mostly set on a Penobscot reservation in Maine.


Before going further, let me say that indigenous writers should be free to tell their stories as they see fit. There are, however, disconnects for non-indigenous readers. Talty often uses non- or barely-translated Penobscot terms. Given that Talty opts for phonetic spellings, it is very difficult to find out more from online Penobscot dictionaries. Many readers, though, may experience more difficulty in making the links that Talty intends because of the book’s short-story format. Had it been a linear novel, the timeframes in which the stories unfold would be easier to locate. More importantly, we could more easily trace David’s evolution.


David’s mother left her non-Native husband and has taken up with Frick, who is a bundle of contradictions. He serves as a teacher of what he thinks of as the old ways, though it’s clear that reservation (“rez”) youth and a considerable part of its adult population are more modern (and troubled) than traditional. That includes Frick, who struggles with alcohol. When a strange container (“In a Jar”) shows up under the doorstep Frick declares it “bad medicine,” smudges the entire house, and pins “good” medicine bundles on David, his pregnant sister Paige, and his partner. They mostly think it itches and abandon them. He is often a good step-dad, but sometimes a bad one prone to taking off. When angry he calls David, “little white-boy,” a slam on his paternity. The overall image is that Frick would like to be a Native version of Superman, but he’s too flawed on a personal level and stuck in a bygone values system he can’t maintain even for himself. Traditional ways show up mainly in residual folk beliefs in sprites and spirits, but their mentions appear more reflexive than serious.


There is humor interspersed in the collection, especially in the opening tale “Burn.” David is an adolescent in this one who hangs out with his methadone center buddy Fellis. One winter’s night Fellis falls asleep on his way home and his hair is frozen to the ice. The only way to free him is for David to cut off his hair. He remarks, “I never thought I’d scalp a fellow tribe member.” Funny, but also emblematic of a rez filled with social problems of many varieties.


As we later learn, by the time he has left childhood—after quitting school—David lives with Fellis and his mother. David’s own mother has many problems of her own, including a seizure disorder, but from Talty’s telling, just about everyone struggles on the rez, be it from discrimination, lack of money, booze, or drugs. Especially the latter. This includes David, who joins Fellis and other mates JP (Jay Pitch) and Tyson in popping pills, including Ativan and “pins” (Klonopin). The drug of choice on the rez is tobacco. Smoking begins in childhood and most of it in the form of cigarettes rather than in rituals. David also engages in some adolescent hijinks such as breaking a bar window, but mostly avoids the serious transgressions of out-of-control Fellis such as serious assaults or a failed robbery of the reservation’s museum whose objective was to sell tribal artifacts to Antiques Roadshow.


It is not until near the end of the book that we learn of a deeper source of David’s pain, but he would have had a hard life even without that trauma. On the rez there’s not enough of anything except distress. Meals are often either fast food or scavenged foods such as fiddleheads and moose meat. It’s where people hunt porcupines to sell to a woman who harvests the quills for ceremonial costumes. How’s that for irony? Desperate people need the $20 that she uses to make vestments that honor Native life. In the moving story “Earth Speak” an older David writes, “this reservation was for the dead.”


Night of the Living Rez is probably funnier to insiders than me, but it’s hard not to note that the book’s title is a spinoff of the 1968 George Romero movie Night of the Living Dead. It’s often considered the first modern zombie movie. Make of that what you will.


Rob Weir




Summer World Music Listening


If you’re like me, summertime is when you throttle down and maybe try a few new things. This column features world music offerings, many of them from musicians based in Barcelona. I justify this by saying that it’s a seacoast city, so if you’re bold you can  load some of these artists onto your favorite music delivery device and give them a metaphorical test drive. Will you like them? Probably not all of them, but why not branch out a little? 




Vanessa Bissiri is Italian, but now lives in Barcelona, a hotbed of contemporary jazz. Hers is sometimes called “neon jazz,” a fusion form that blends the swaying Mediterranean feel of the 1970s with more recent trends. “C’è sempre il mare” is an example. It’s decidedly in the softer “cool jazz” idiom, but her voice hints that she might also be able to walk across the avenue into a pop club and hold her own there. “Se perfuma y toma mast,” which is roughly about a dandy who smells good but drinks, finds Bissini singing in the seams of quirky beats. These are two offerings from her recent album Empatica (“Empathetic”) and are typical of the whole.




For a different Catalán experience try Clavellina D’Aire, the stage name of two music teachers, Cati Plana (diatonic accordion) and Jordi Macaya (viola). They prefer folk stylings, but again in an airy, light style. Their album Musiques per emportar-se a iles desertes translates music to carry away to deserted islands, akin to the similar English idiom. It’s a nonsensical phrase if you truly consider it (where would you get batteries or electricity on a deserted island?), but Clavellina D’Aire could definitely provide some chill-out sounds to help you calm down. I recommend them for relaxing on non-deserted beaches. Try the combo of “Pròleg/La Tosca,” the first café-like and the second brighter and traipsing. If you like their keep-things-simple approach as much as I, you can find a half hour concert on YouTube. Appropriately, they perform in a sunny park with children playing quietly and adults doing nothing much in particular. You can readily see, though, that these are two talented people, something that needs no translation. I especially enjoy the way Macaya flirts with discordant notes without actually crossing over. He also has a capable singing voice I find infectious.  




How about a flamenco guitarist in a highbrow vein? Feliu Gasull has released Pit roig (“red breast”), an album that will have appeal to fellow string wizards. The title track showcases Gasull’s talent. “Caminet” is also typical of his more classical touch. A hora is a circle dance that’s often exuberant. Gasull, though, opts for a quiet approach to “Hora Baixa.” Sample before you purchase, though, as this is cerebral material that won’t be everyone’s cup of chocolate caliente.



The name Laura Downes might ring a bell for National Public Radio listeners. She hosts the world music show AMPLIFY, on which she sometimes showcases female musicians of color. She is of Jamaican/Russian heritage, was born in San Francisco, and raised in Europe. If you don’t know her, though, don’t expect her own music to bop like Afropop or even come close to rocking out; she’s a classical pianist. Her latest recording, Love at Last, has nearly two dozen tracks but don’t anticipate from their titles. Folk music, for example, is replete with songs titled “Tree of Life,” but none of have the same take as hers. Nor should you expect an offering such as “Blessing” to sound either anthemic or balladic. It’s a frenzied trip up and down the white keys that’s a loosely structured composition that drifts toward atonality. Downes is impressive, though I confess that her work–like Gasull’s–impresses me more than it attracts me.




If you’ve had enough of the quiet stuff, slide into the evening with something that falls into the rowdy and stomping category. Barcelona is, after all, a warm city and Julivert likes its music accordingly. The title track of “A Tamarit” sounds like a big  party is about to break out and as soon as everyone is lubricated, maybe they will ask some Balkan, Cajun, and Roma musicians to join them. “Som de l’oest” hints they will lower the pace. Never fear! The moment fingers touch the fiddle, the temperature rises. If “Bella Ciao” got any more tongue in cheek, lead singer Jordi Suñé  would need a surgeon to dislodge it. Julivert specialize in cançons, high-spirited dances you’d find at a village feast or an Argentinian tavern. Call Julivert—the word means “parsley” by the way–the antithesis of the mannered offerings above. If the music sounds rough around the edges, I suspect they’d have it no other way.




Rob Weir


Old Joy: When Old Friends Fade


OLD JOY (2006)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Washington Square Films, 76 minutes, not rated (brief dorsal nudity)

★ ½ 





Films in the Criterion Collection are usually quality offerings, but not always. I recently saw Old Joy, a Kelly Reichardt offering. She is known for independent movies that are conceptually intriguing. The final products, though, blow hot and cold. ( Meek’s Cutoff is my favorite from her.)


Old Joy came two years before Reichardt made her most celebrated movie, Wendy and Lucy. Lucy the dog is also in Old Joy and I exaggerate only slightly when I saw that the pooch has more affect than the two human principals. Mark (Daniel London) is on the eve of fatherhood, when he gets call from old friend Kurt (Will Oldham) wanting to know if he wants to go on a weekend camping and hot spring road trip. It is inferred, though never spelled out, that Kurt is troubled in a mildly depressed manner, but Mark could use a little time to wrap his own head around the change coming in his own life. His wife tells him to go, so he packs the car and takes Lucy along for the outing.


Old Joy was made in Oregon. Mark agrees to drive as everything about Kurt, including his rented apartment, his van, and his personal appearance bespeak the term bedraggled. They set up for the Cascades, smoke weed, and get lost a few times, but neither is what you’d call a great conversationalist. They end up spending the night in a tent at the end of a road where household junk has been strewn, find a diner the next morning, get directions, hike into Bagley Hot Springs, soak in the springs (with a bit of ambiguous neck rubbing from Kurt), head back to the city (Portland?), and say their goodbyes. That’s it. The movie is just 76 minutes long but its pace is so labored and lugubrious that it had to stretch to break the one-hour mark. There are several mostly wordless driving POV shots whose major purposes are to emphasize the lack of connection between Mark and Kurt and to spotlight a rather subdued soundtrack from Yo La Tengo.


I get what Reichardt wanted to do. Most of us probably have people from our past with whom we were once close. Reunions usually go one of two directions. In the best case scenario it’s like picking up a discussion that began decades earlier as if we were interrupted just yesterday. The sadder result is the realization that the two of you have gone down different paths and there’s no spur road that reconnects them. The title Old Joy says it all. Kurt reminded me of a burnt out Deadhead who thinks that the next hit, song, hot spring, or Burning Man–there’s an oblique reference to it–will resuscitate the sweet bird of youth. Reichardt uses postindustrial physical decay, tired diners, and litter to underscore how the friendship between Mark and Kurt is past its sell-by date. In the end, like Mark we observe that things are old, but not joyful.


Old Joy is ultimately a sad film, but it’s simply not a very interesting one. Despite the expanse of the mountain ranges and the lushness of the Pacific rainforest, the movie is claustrophobic. I’m at a loss to see why some critics called it one of the best films of 2006, or why it ended up in the Criterion Collection. Lucy was delightful, though.


Rob Weir