Tom Bradley, Even the Dog Won’t Touch Me, Ahadada Books
As if growing up in the mountains of Mormon Utah weren’t enough to skew Tom Bradley’s worldview, he grew to be about seven feet tall, and then chose to live in an area of the world populated by folks not known for large stature. Few people measure up to his height, and even less measure up to his expectations. His judgments (usually related through the eyes of his alter ego, Dr. Samuel Edwine) can be harsh, and his latest story collection, Even the dog won’t touch me, does nothing to change that trend. Tom Bradley finds many things ridiculous, and he is not afraid to let us know it. Because, really, who is going to confront this man?
When a small press with Dada in its name publishes a writer of Bizarro fiction, you can bet that convention won’t be invited to the release party. The back cover describes these ten stories as bouncing “back and forth across the Pacific as if it were a mud puddle,” but that is only a small indication of the amount of disorientation the reader will feel if she or he does not ingest this collection in small doses. By the time it’s over, Bradley has taken on Chinese peasants, anyone and everyone involved in the corporate publishing world, Chinese revolutionaries, anyone and everyone involved in creative writing programs, Chinese policy makers, Mormons, Chinese beggars, Sylvester Stallone (actually, that would make for an interesting rumble), and the Chinese. Not even Sam Edwine himself escapes censure, for Tom Bradley is not afraid of self deprecation. Bradley is a small press writer—Spuyten Duyvil, Brown Trout, ahadada—but I wondered, in reading stories like “The Stylist” and “Closet Fiction,” whether this was by choice or necessity. I still don’t know, but the question was among the many things in this collection that I had fun exploring.
In “The Stylist,” Sam Edwine is whisked off to a bar by a pack of androgynous “communications corporation” consultants and subjected to petting and pawing as they debate how best to package this 6’ 9”, 330 pound, self-conscious red-headed Utahan and use his image to sell his book. “The sheer untutored vigor of certain presentation-selves,” remarks one of these stylists, “transcends even the minimum requirements of grooming and personal hygiene.” As Sam squirms, another tells him, “You were born for no other reason, Dr. Edwine, than to be photographed and videotaped and filmed and digitally recorded.” The reader gets the sense that nothing would horrify Tom Bradley more than to be the center of attention of such a group (if he hasn’t already been) but then Edwine is rewarded with a six-figure advance, a perfect windfall for a man “horrified of work,” a character about whom, in a later piece, the narrator asks, “How does one grasp capitalism or Marxism or any other materialistic system, assuming that all sentient creatures seek maximum repose and nothing else?”
So, is Bradley bitter that he never has been thusly received by the corporate publishing world? Is he saying that it would be utterly ridiculous if he were? Is he afraid that his visage would mean more to the buying public than his words? The stylists haven’t even read Edwine’s book … but neither did Edwine write it. Instead, we learn that it was penned by a janitor who commits a malodorous suicide in a Mormon tabernacle. Maybe we’re not supposed to infer anything at all from any of this? Perhaps it’s just supposed to be fun to read? It is, for the most part. While an ex-pat in China, Edwine takes the following actions: buys a handicapped peasant’s tricycle for pennies, steals a baby, attempts to steal a different handicapped peasant’s tricycle, and performs as “the big evil Yankee” in anti-capitalist street theatre. This is Bizarro fiction, remember. Anything goes. Edwine and the other characters are thrust into ridiculous situations and absurd conversations, and they take illogical and often unrealistic steps to further the action.
Mostly because of this loose, anarchic structure, Even the Dog Won’t Touch Me is a hit-and-miss collection, entertaining one moment, frustrating the next. “One Child Policy,” the story in which Edwine buys the trike and steals the baby, has flashes of inspired writing: “Everybody had a boy’s share of money, the precious pittance doled out by inaccessible Daddy, the twenty-five cents per week you got for no particular reason except that you existed and Daddy wanted to read the paper. So kiss off, you little asshole, here’s a quarter to keep you quiet: the small lucre that transformed bike rides to the candy store into cultural events to be savored with the full attention.” On the very next page, though, Bradley lets the horse take the bit: “His was a deoxyribonucleic ergophobia. It was no big deal when the Flying Pigeon numbed his scrotum. Even under the best of circumstances, the homunculi that huddled down there were about as motile as the former owner of this wheelchair. It was the end of the line for Sam Edwine, genealogically speaking.”
Bradley never claims to be writing high literature here. He’s merely trying to entertain us, and to make us think about a couple of issues along the way. All he really wants is to share with us a glimpse through his window on the world, if only for a couple of hours. Still, after finishing “One Child Policy,” the third in the collection, I had high hopes for the rest until the following piece, “At the Airport,” opened with this clunker: “I used to be a teen, just like everybody else over a certain age (specifically nineteen).” After that, I simply settled in with the book and took it for the pleasant bit of Bizarro that it is. I relished pieces like “Sam Edwine Says Hi to a Bum in Foo-Chow (Marco Polo Went There, Too)” and “Procedures for an American Military Wife Stationed in Hiroshima During Times of Increased Terrorist Activity,” both of which outshine their diarrheic titles, and I didn’t dwell on the ones that missed for me, such as “At the Beautician’s” and the title story, both of which are eleven pages too long.
Bradley is reminiscent of Charles Bukowski, though maybe less biting and with a bit less to say (although I’d opine that Sam Edwine dislikes work even more than Henry Chinaski). If you find yourself in the mood for something different, a quick read (121 pages) from a writer not afraid to be illogical, unrealistic, or offensive, pick up Even the Dog Won‘t Touch Me. If you’re thinking about a career in publishing or the creative writing industry and want a second opinion, pay special attention to “The Stylist,” “At the Creative Writing Workshop,” and “Closet Fiction.” But if you prefer straightforward, traditional, linear, non-playful narrative, steer clear. And lighten up.