Ryan Ridge’s Experimental ‘New Bad News’ Upends the Familiar

Flash fiction?” questions the New Yorker-obsessed father in Ryan Ridge’s meta flash fiction piece, “A Novel Idea.” “What those degenerates on the Internet write? No, no, that won’t do. No son of mine is going to produce small works destined for obscurity. Novels: that’s the idea. It’s a novel idea. Novels longer than your hair, son. Something to make publishers swoon.”

We owe a debt of gratitude to the Louisville, Kentucky-based Sarabande Books for swooning and selecting Ridge’s story collection New Bad News as the fourteenth annual publication in the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature. The collection deftly counterbalances flash fiction as brief as a single well-stocked sentence with lengthier pieces, escalating with fever dream pacing into pop-culture-laden experimental explorations of Americana and narrative itself. Along the way, we are introduced to a coyote lapping up a Colt 45, a chipper — albeit absentee — Clint Eastwood, an all-too-present Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Terminator persona, an albino greyhound named Desire, and recurring appearances by an unsettled Kentuckian meandering the LA scene on his Triumph motorcycle.

Indeed, Ridge is most triumphant when employing clever, offbeat use of repetition within and across stories, circling oddities back on themselves, forbidding us from looking away until the full strangeness has been absorbed like a pistol purchased to shoot another pistol, a detective hired to find a missing detective who was in turn hired to find a missing cam girl, the literal echoes of Echo Park, a tramp stamp of Charlie Chaplin, and Festival Fest (“your ticket to the hottest tickets” from other festivals).

Ridge is masterful in his interrogations of modernism and minimalism, simultaneously playing into and against tropes, as seen in “Noir”: “There’s the slant of the shoreline and the lights of the oil derricks reflecting off the black water like a miniature city, and when the detective arrives to make the cash drop at the dark edge of the pier he’s struck by two things at once: (1) the vast existential loneliness of LA at night, and (2) a blackjack to the back of the head.”

That same ability to load a sentence, to upend the familiar, and to lead us around and around with a well-positioned reiteration can also be found in lines like these, a half dozen examples from many:

“The next day there wasn’t a next day.”

“Rome wasn’t built in a daydream. However, Paris, Tennessee, was.”

“Hank’s the perfect name for gods and dogs.”

“They are undoubtedly decent people, despite conflicting reports in the neighborhood newsletters.”

“If I’m lucky, really lucky, they’ll name a burning building or a car crash after me.”

“Back in my Echo Park apartment, I got higher than God’s zipper on dispensary dope and catalogued my failures on Post-It Notes.”

The tour de force of the collection is its penultimate piece, “22-nd Century Man,” previously published as a limited run chapbook in 2013, which (ostensibly) chronicles insights generated by three Internet chatbots in response to 20 queries from Padgett Powell’s 2009 novel, The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? The results are prose poems of nonsensical ruminations (“I don’t care much for horses because I won’t be on earth long enough to ride them.”) interspersed with witticisms (“If I’m not changing the subject, I’m changing the verb.”). Whether these passages artfully reveal or conceal the work of a brilliant writer is left up to a reader already immersed, by this point, in the enticingly strange wonderment of New Bad News.

This fifth book-length work from Ridge is a welcome addition to any worthwhile library of short or experimental fiction and goes down particularly well with a chaser of Beth Ann Fennelly’s 2017 micro-memoir collection, Heating and Cooling.

FICTION
New Bad News
By Ryan Ridge
Sarabande
Published May 19, 2020