Review: Winterswim

Ryan W. Bradley
172 pages
5.2” x 8” Perfect-bound trade paperback
Also available in ebook and audiobook formats
ISBN 978–1–9378–6532–0
First Edition
Civil Coping Mechanisms
Available HERE
Review originally published on 3/2/15

Winterswim tells the macabre story of Pastor Sheldon Long and his son, Steven. Sheldon is a man twisted by a brutal childhood and called by the voice of God to save the souls of everyone he can the only way he knows how: by giving them the same communion he’s had (meth), having them accept Jesus, and throwing them in the icy lakes of Wasilla, Alaska. Steven is unfortunate enough to have a crush on most of his father’s victims.

Ryan W. Bradley, the author of Winterswim, has done a good job playing up the feedback he’s received for his slim novel. One reader said of Winterswim: “I feel sullied.” But rather than let that get him down, Bradley threw that quote up on a banner as if it were a blurb. It is a disturbing book (clearly, right?), but not in the way that’s become standard in literature these days: Nobody gets his intestines pulled out of his butt at the bottom of a pool; there’s no excess of blood. There aren’t even any trees full of dead babies. Yet Bradley manages to make you cringe. Here’s why:

“You’re not concerned about girls your age turning up dead? You’re not grieving over your friend?”
Rebecca turned her head, pretended to study the paintings of Jesus on the walls. “You were the one hooking them up, right?” (p. 76)

The speakers above are Sheldon Long and Rebecca Hanson, a teen who, as you can see, just wants to get high. And this is terrifying because it’s probably true. Winterswim will strike you as outlandish at first — everyone is turned up a notch, too crazy or too fiendish for reality. But as you read, you realize that isn’t true. This isn’t so nuts. The people who act crazy probably are, but that’s the reality you actually live in. People do go crazy. People are addicted to meth. A lot of people. The book is set in Wasilla, after all, and we know the things they get up to there.

The other half of the book, Steven, is admittedly the weaker half. He’s a bit of a dial-tone, and once combined with Kate, the Hollywood star returned home, a rather inexplicable Marty Sue. Steven’s pursuit of his father is a little simple and ineffectual, but Steven still represents part of this real and terrifying world. He’s the observer, the altered, the one left behind. Even his world-class dreamgirl has been tainted by the evil sharing his roof, and she holds disturbing implications for him that are bound to fuck him up. Sheldon is caught by Steven, but there’s no redemption in the closure — the damage has been done. It’s Steven who is left with the pieces, and they will not be put back together easily, if ever; Bradley has made sure we know that.