Turtleface and Beyond
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
How far would you go for a man who collapses at you from the side of the street? What if he’d been bitten by a poisonous snake and asked you to suck out the venom? What if you were late to a wedding horribly underdressed? Would you ask to borrow his tie? In fiction as in life, there will be no easy answers—but Arthur Bradford’s Turtleface and Beyond puts on a good show regardless.
Bradford’s no stranger to praise. His first collection, Dogwalker (2001), was described by David Foster Wallace as “a book that’s like being able to have lunch with the part of you that dreams at night.” Zadie Smith has called Bradford “one of the funniest, tallest writers at work in America today.” Bradford’s undoubtedly still tall, and he’s definitely still hilarious, funneling an upbeat optimism into the quirks of his hapless narrator, Georgie. The guiding star in each of Turtleface’s twelve linked stories, Georgie navigates a gauntlet of jobs and odd situations like a weary Candide and we get to follow along.
In the opening story, “Turtleface,” a whiskey-infused canoe adventure quickly shifts into a frenzied scramble when a man attempts to impress his group by running off a steep cliff into the lake, only to run into the shell of a snapping turtle, who breaks both his fall—and his face. Talk about bad timing. Georgie adopts the injured turtle and takes in his injured friend as well—who is given the nickname Turtleface due to his facial disfigurement and his inclination to leash the turtle who caused it, for walks around the neighborhood. We meet Turtleface’s traumatic injury group which includes a lady who has been attacked by a chimpanzee, and a man who has an unshakable impulse to pour boiling water on himself. Eventually, Georgie and Turtleface decide to release Charlotte back to the lake where they found her—but not without the letting of fresh blood.
The stories that follow are equally if not more absurd in their unfolding. It’s clear early on that Georgie’s life is rife with random calamities that inevitably seem to seek him out. The story “Lost Limbs” begins: “It wasn’t until my second date with Lenore that I discovered one of her arms was missing.” You know… the usual. In “Orderly,” Georgie wonders what qualifies as insanity when he find himself infatuated with one of prettier patients in a mental institution. In “Travels with Paul,” Georgie, well, travels with Paul, a suicidal insomniac who crashes the home of a Goth pothead couple and accidentally lights their kitchen on fire. In “The Box,” Georgie buys a house with the promise that he will not bother an eight-foot gray box that sits in his back yard, which is fine at first until the lights and voices that ascend from it at night have him begging to borrow his neighbor’s tractor.
Bradford binds a steady stream of incidents both absurd yet realistically believable. He’s deft, in a sober sense. His stories are as much about teaching empathy as they are case studies masked in seamless storytelling. He pushes social courtesies between strangers and acquaintances to the limit. And in that respect, Turtleface is as much a meditation of mercy as it is entertainingly weird. And though none of the characters prove to be exemplary role-models, they will leave us wondering about our own compassionate/homicidal tendencies; they inspire us to ask questions like “What would I do if I was this guy?” or as asked by Brad Pitt’s character in Se7en: “What’s in the box?” And we can only hope it’s not a severed head. But if it is, well that’s fine, too.