Small is Beautiful: Hunters and Gamblers by Ryan Ridge

Somebody is long overdue in reviewing Hunters and Gamblers by Ryan Ridge, and I think it is me. Mr. Bib sometimes sets a book aside, then forgets whether he set it aside to read it or to ignore it, so that the tall, dangerous stacks around the Bibliofella's ramshackle country domicile cum library and reading room get mixed up. It's a fun house biblio-hoarder's paradise or nightmare-- just ask Ms. Bib, who has to live with it, and her hubby always looking for something: reading glasses, book, American dream.  

Happily, I have found them all, so apologies to Ridge, who is a grad of the UC Irvine Creative Writing MFA, lives in Long Beach and, I hope, is a patient, forgiving guy. The collection, from Dark Sky Books, arrived in July of last year, and includes short stories, short-short stories and a very short novella.  You should buy it and, unlike the Bibliofella, read it immediately. 

Indeed, once begun is half done, and in a good way. Short, funny, smart and wildly imaginative are my favorite adjectives as regards prose generally, and Ridge delivers. Which is to say that the Bibliofella often feels he is required to read some books, for his own good, but gets genuinely excited reading done for fun and joy, sneaking back to, just now, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here and, yes, Hunters and Gamblers, whose title riffs on the calculating, flawed, absurd anthopology of our dying republic and whose spirit would make Lewis chuckle.

Ryan Ridge, American fabulist
Ryan Ridge, American fabulist




These are solid and eccentric voice-driven nutty narrator pieces, all with so much back story, history and narrative that you might imagine there exists a whole other novel in or out of these concentrated tales of Aesop-like moral instruction, where characters involve themselves in other conversations, situation, dramas just off the page. Such is the power and holism of dream, and of a singular voice, with wit aplenty, a la Donald Barthelme, my own mentor Jim Krusoe, Stanley Crawford, Richard Brautigan, to whom all you might favorably compare Mr. Ryan Ridge, if that is his real name. I mean to say that it sounds like an imaginary surreal place you might find in the author's own magnetic dreamworld of the American idiomatic landscape of deserts and highways and churches and prison, with the Western themes and cowboy dialectic of irony, violence, humor and character like, maybe Cliff Cliff or Rudy Vallee, punny and echoing, as if somebody is falling, falling forever down into the gully, pardner. Re cowboy think Will Rogers 
The other Mr. Rogers
The other Mr. Rogers

on acid, mocking, thankfully, all that is good and decent and right, but with the logic and moral courage of that same ambassador of humanity who never met a man he didn't somehow still like. Or has the empathy enough to dislike, righteously, like, yes, that great lover of his stupid species, Kurt Vonnegut.

The best "traditional" short stories here call attention to themselves further, by seeming to flaunt their economy and fable-like narrative arc, but is aloo the project of the shorter parables, small fragments, darkly jokey prose poem-like comple-on-one-page odysseys that so delight, as if commercials for the view from Ryan Ridge, USA. The beautiful disharmony and fabulist logic of the collection's world's shortest novella, "Holiest of Holies," finds our hero, named Anton but nicknamed Kilroy by his deeply compromised preacher-man boss, taking the rap for his own stooginess and sublime cooperation with power. It is high-anxiety funny, blasphemous and heretical.

There's a blind artist painting about about faith, a mega-church with a GodDome and a skybox, a secret  which needs burying, love lost and, throughout, the winning Zippy the Pinhead or Tom Tomorrow send-up of brand names and the jargon of lowest common denominator dialogue that seems to have drowned real discourse in the US of A. There is a battle between North and South California, a taxidermy love story, shakedown artist Girl Scouts. Throughout the kooky-wise sage tells us, darkly, sarcastically, what we are experiencing, which is in-flight turbulence on our way to the crash, as in the short-short "Turbulence":  "It was the best of times, it was the Patty Hearst of times" and "like so many of my fellow countrymen I lost nearly everything, yet still managed to gain weight, I was just another slob struggling to make rent on a shotgun house in the part of town criminals moved away from--in short, the period was exactly like most historical periods, that is to say, it was not unlike flying into Denver International Airport in the rain."

If you appreciate giggling smugly a subversive activity, and laughing out loud in anti-social giddy joyful gratitude, this is the book for you. And if you don't this is really the book for you. Ridge's less-is-more ethos makes it easy to participate, and still feel pain. And empathy, too, to join the suspension of disbelief, or of belief, to pick up the surreal and see that it is also urgent political commentary, critical thinking-out-loud, and to be surprised by that.  Surprise, finally, arrives on every page of this perfect little book.  


Programming note: The Spring Fund Drive continues at KPFK. Please consider what it means to be lucky enough to be part of a community of programmers, staff, volunteers and listener-supporters (you and me) with an alternative political, arts and culture, public affairs, gay and lesbian, disability rights, native American, feminist and, yes, literary bent. Call (818) 985-5735 to pledge, on go online. Tell 'em the Bibliofella sent you.

Another Programming note: How great is it that the above enduring people's radio station now hosts a terrific weekly dramatic arts show on Sunday nights? Moved from KPCC to 8 PM on Sunday at KPFK, LA Theater Works offers the best performance of plays, contemporary and classic, by any radio acting company. The Works recently staged The Man Who Had All the Luck, by Arthur Miller.  Upcoming productions include Buried Child, by Sam Shepard starring Amy Madigan and 8 by Dustin Lance Black, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen and, well, everybody.

Ryan Ridge, Hunters and Gamblers, Dark Sky Books, 125 pps. $12.00

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio, on KPFK 90.7 in Southern California.

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