Messages from the American TrashCan by Bram Riddlebarger

Messages from the American Trashcan
Bram Riddlebarger
Cabal Books
July 2020
ISBN: 9780999671689
PB: $15.99
146 pages
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In its publicity copy, Bram Riddlebarger’s new collection of short stories Messages from the American Trashcan confides that “maybe they’re poems.”

The feel of this ambitious collection is probably best described as something hybrid and it does feel more like a story collection in terms of reading experience than a collection of poetry, even if most of the individual pieces are brief. Riddlebarger has a pair of published novels under his belt already and has published poetry, as well.

It’s also accurate to describe this book, Riddlebarger’s third book of fiction, as simply a well-conceived project come to life.

Some of the pieces in Messages from the American Trashcan are found texts or found images, the kind of thing not uncommon in some poetry and art books. But these complement texts that, regardless of length, are stories. These can be single-sentence, Lydia Davis-fortune-cookie works or bizarre stories with a Donald Barthelme quality to them, like the spectacular story “Being,” in which a duck and a man converse in a way that’s fable-like and is digging at deeper meaning if the man, or reader, chooses to see it that way.

This book puts some onus on the reader. The meaning is all in there, but it’s up to the reader to see it. Otherwise, the found images or found texts are just litter that blew into the American Trashcan because that’s where the wind hurled them.

Some of these stories are clearly set in Appalachia, where Riddlebarger resides, having studied at Ohio University for years, but some of them aren’t necessarily Appalachian and could fit many of the overlooked-in-plain-sight pockets of America, people living in every crevice, that are scattered all over this country. One of the found pieces in the book was attributed to Bud Smith, a prolific and underrated fiction writer and construction worker based in New Jersey whose work is a little akin to Riddlebarger’s.

Some of what’s here is elegy (not the Cincinnati suburban hillbilly-posturing kind of elegy we’ve all been subjected to on NPR). And some of this is apocalyptic or looks at the future. This doesn’t take on Trump explicitly, but if you want to find Trump, there are found Wendy’s wrappers you can dig through in here or you can look through your own garbage at home.

In short, the book is hard to pin down, but in the best way.

That makes it a lot like the America it works to depict.

Gregory Sullivan’s writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, VICE Sports, The Toronto Star, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, and other places. He grew up in Georgia, worked as a newspaper journalist in Georgia and Tennessee, and completed an MFA in fiction from Rutgers University. Now, he lives and writes in North Carolina.