45 pages 1 hour read

Morgan Talty

Night of the Living Rez

Fiction | Short Story Collection | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Night of the Living Rez, a linked short story collection by writer and academic Morgan Talty, follows the life of a young Indigenous man growing up and trying to find a place for himself on the Penobscot Nation’s reservation. As a citizen of the Penobscot Nation, Talty uses his identity to inform this collection’s gritty, lived-in portrayals of substance abuse, colonial trauma, and families coming together in the face of hardship. Night of the Living Rez, published in 2022, won the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, the New England Book Award, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Story Collection, and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction.

This guide refers to the Tin House paperback edition of Night of the Living Rez published in 2022.

Content Warning: This guide discusses substance abuse, violence, racism, miscarriage, sexual assault, death of a child, death of the elderly, and animal death.

Plot Summary

Night of the Living Rez features interconnected stories about the same group of characters. David, later called Dee, is the first-person narrator of all these stories. Structurally, the collection oscillates between Dee- and David-narrated stories, giving a kaleidoscopic view of a life spent on the reservation.

In “Burn,” Dee walks home after a failed attempt at acquiring marijuana and finds his friend Fellis trapped by ice, his hair frozen into a swamp. Dee cuts Fellis’s hair off and the two decide that when they get home, they’ll burn the hair.

In “In a Jar,” a young David, recently moved to the Penobscot reservation with his mother, finds himself living with his mother’s new partner, Frick, who is the local medicine man, and later with his older sister Paige. Paige reveals that she’s pregnant, which causes tension between Paige, her mother, and her grandmother. Paige miscarries, and the family takes the fetus in a plastic bin to a place where they perform a burial ceremony.

In “Get Me Some Medicine,” Dee and Fellis are hanging out at a bar when they see Meekew, another college-aged Penobscot man who can sell them drugs. Outside the bar, Fellis inquires about buying a gram, but Meekew declines the proposition. The interaction escalates to physical violence between Fellis and Meekew, with Dee eventually intervening and hitting Meekew over the head. They leave Meekew and return to Fellis’s house. Dee wakes the next day and returns to scene of the fight, but Meekew is gone. He finds Fellis already out there in the forest, hunting a porcupine that won’t come down from its tree.

In “Food for the Common Cold,” Frick and David’s mother are fighting because Frick wants to have children, but David’s mother says she can’t conceive. David’s mother goes to Frick’s cabin in the forest, where she finds a photo of a young girl. When David’s mother confronts Frick about this, he reveals that he had a daughter who died in a car accident. After this moment of vulnerability, David’s mother explains why she can’t conceive: When David was born, she discovered that he had a tumorous “twin” who had spread throughout her body, preventing any possible future births.

In “In a Field of Stray Caterpillars,” Dee and Fellis drive home from Fellis’s hospital appointment. The road is covered with caterpillars that reek when killed. The smell is so bad that they are distracted as they complete their errands: returning a DVD to the rental store and picking up Fellis’s aunt’s medications. When they get home, Fellis’s mother says that they delivered the wrong medication to his aunt. Having taken the medication, she’s now on her way over for some Ativan to calm herself down. She recovers after taking the Ativan, and they all head to McDonald’s.

In “The Blessing Tobacco,” David visits with his grandmother, who, suffering from the onset of a deteriorative memory disorder, believes that David is actually her own younger brother. She punishes David for stealing the family’s blessing tobacco—a transgression committed long ago by her brother—by making him smoke upward of 14 cigarettes. David returns home, sick. Later that night the police bring his grandmother by; she feels guilty for, in her view, having driven her younger brother out of the house and allowing him to drown in the river. David shows her that he’s still alive, but his grandmother no longer recognizes him at all.

In “Safe Harbor,” the narrator, who is never named but is implied to be David, visits his mother at the crisis stabilization unit where she’s staying on account of her seizures. During a conversation, his mother begins to have a seizure. While David waits for the ambulance to come, his mother talks to him but no longer seems to know who he is. The ambulance comes and David, unable to accompany his mother, waits for her to call. After she does, he goes out for a drive. He drives recklessly, eventually getting in an accident. He ends up in the hospital and asks, upon arrival, if his mother knows he’s there.

In “Smokes Last,” David is hanging out with his friends Tyson and JP. This distresses David’s mother, because the boys play violent games that often see David coming home injured. David comes home and takes a phone call from his father, who wires David money. David steals some cigarettes from his mother and then goes out to get the money. He meets up with Tyson, and the two have an altercation outside a bar with some white men who want their cigarettes; David ends up throwing a rock at the men after they call him a racial slur, and the rock breaks the bar’s window. The boys flee. When David gets home, he finds that his mother has discovered he’s been stealing her cigarettes and she’s left him a pack on his bed.

In “Half-Life,” Dee wakes up in a silo with Fellis after a night of drinking and taking benzodiazepines. He asks Fellis for more drugs, but Fellis doesn’t have any on him. After heading home, Dee and his mother head to the nursing home where his grandmother is staying. His grandmother reveals that she recently won $5,000, which she’s keeping in her house. David later breaks into her house and finds the key to her safe, but before he can get the money, his mother also arrives at the house. He escapes unidentified by covering himself in his grandmother’s clothes. The grandmother’s valuables are brought to Dee’s house after his mother reports the robbery. Among them, David finds the safe, which contains an envelope with his name on it and money inside. David uses some of the money to buy drugs from Meekew. He remembers to call his grandmother after, and he learns that she has died.

In “Earth, Speak,” Dee and Fellis, planning to rob a tribal museum for money to buy drugs, visit a man named Daryl who has the code to the museum. Fellis physically assaults Daryl not for the code but because Daryl propositioned Fellis’s young cousin. They decide to go ahead with the robbery without the code. Dee, keeping watch while Fellis commits the crime, sees police coming and hides in a sweat lodge belonging to a man named Ralph. Ralph feeds Dee and shields him from the police, and afterward Dee, entering methadone withdrawal, returns home to be nursed by his mother. His mother tells him that Fellis was caught fleeing to Boston. When he’s recovered, Dee returns to Ralph and the men sit in the sweat lodge together.

In “Night of the Living Rez,” David, hanging out with Tyson and JP in the forest at night, find Paige wandering through the woods in an altered state. David helps Paige get home. The next day, David goes out and notices that there’s a film crew making a documentary about the reservation. He returns home and finds Frick, in an altered state, attempting to rape Paige. David helps Paige escape Frick, and Paige attacks Frick with a fireplace poker. David’s mother returns home at the same time the film crew is passing by, and David’s mother attempts to console her children while shielding her family from being filmed.

In “The Name Means Thunder,” Dee recalls the time David went temporarily blind. It begins when Paige brings her newborn son home from the hospital and enters a postpartum depression so severe that she refuses to name the child and eventually flees the house. Frick goes out in search of her and, when he fails to return, David’s mother goes out after them both. David, left with the child, deals with the appearance of Paige’s caseworker by leaving the house with the child. The two stay out for a long time, watching the sun for long enough that David loses his sight. When they return to the house to find David’s mother, Frick, and Paige, they find that the child has died. David’s vision returns slowly, and the family performs a ceremony for the dead.