WINTERSWIM by Ryan W. Bradley

Ryan W. Bradley
Civil Coping Mechanisms

The best noir is the kind that gets under your skin and makes you feel profoundly uncomfortable. Author Ryan W. Bradley does exactly that in Winterswim, and he pulls it off with a unique narrative set in Alaska that brings together familial tensions, murder, drugs, a touch of folklore, and the kind of religious angle that delves deep into the extreme kind of lethal fanaticism that thrives in the interstitial space between powerful faith and utter insanity.

Pastor Sheldon Long had a bizarre life story. He was born in the woods and grew up in a secluded cabin with no electricity or running water. His parents were a bizarre couple composed of a mute mother with native roots and an abusive father who preached God’s vengeance. His parents’ influences mixed in Long’s brain and he ended up understanding God as a hybrid that possessed the penchant for punishment his father spoke about along with the mythologies of his mother’s tribe. Then, as a pastor, Long started seeing himself as a tool of God whose job it was to dish out punishment, and he did so with steady and very deadly hands. Unfortunately for the pastor, his son, Steven, decides to investigate the string of drownings that the authorities are too happy to call accidents. Despite being young and focusing almost all his energy on the opposite sex, Steven, along with an old crush that came back to town after starting a successful acting career, learns too much about his father’s past and present, and what he learns can have a huge effect on both of their futures.

Bradley is a very talented writer with a knack for the unshakably creepy, noir atmospheres, and economy of language. Winterswim comes in at under 200 pages and makes for a very quick read because of its short chapters and breakneck pacing, but despite its speed and length, it offers a very satisfying read and a powerful conclusion. Although any of this is enough to make it a recommended read for fans of great crime fiction, the novel possess something else that makes it a must read; an indefinable quality that makes the narrative dance between the beauty of the mythological realm and the grittiest and most perverse moments of human desire, insanity, and addiction. The result is a novel with the power to make readers profoundly uncomfortable without having to rely on gore or extreme violence:

“When Pastor Long finished he scooted away from Serena and gave a nod to Pratt, who took the pastor’s place. He braced himself and hunched low over her body. She was wet now with the pastor’s come and Pratt slid in easily. He watched her eyes as he fondled her breasts. He was always nervous their eyes would open.”

Winterwim is a success for the things it does as well as for the things it doesn’t do. While too many authors spend too much time describing places and giving details that don’t add anything to the main premise, Bradley writes with a tight, straightforward prose that always rushes forward. Likewise, instead of turning the narrative into an exploration of Long’s actions and thoughts, the author simply gives the readers the background and his current actions and allows the combination to speak for itself. This forces to reader to pay attention and, while not everything Long does is easy to understand, or easy to digest, his actions satisfy our voyeuristic impulses and give a complete picture of an unraveling madman:

“A voice traveled through the current and slipped through Sheldon’s ears. It made his heart stop. He pushed his feet against the river bottom and launched upward. As he exited the water the cold hit him, his body seized. He shook so hard he could barely pull himself back into his clothes. He stomped his feet and slapped his hands hard against his upper arms. His breaths came in shallow spurts. He stomped harder, churning his legs until he could feel them and then he began to run.”

Winterswim packs enough murder, meth, and sex to satisfy hardcore noir fans, but it also has a literary side that proves brutality and elegance can inhabit the same narrative space and compliment each other while delivering a very entertaining story.

Gabino Iglesias