Last year The Masters Review had the wonderful pleasure of publishing Dale Bridges’ zombie story “Life After Men” as part of our New Voices series. I founded The Masters Review in 2011 as an online journal and yearly anthology, working with authors such as Lauren Groff, AM Homes, and Lev Grossman to showcase new talent. Our New Voices series is open to any writer who has not yet published a novel-length work, and Bridges’ story appealed to me right away because it examines a brutal future told from a sensitive and funny point of view. “Life After Men” takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where men turn into zombies after sex and women dispose of them by any means necessary. It is a story about friendship and dangerous sex; it is also a story about ruining your Gucci handbag by bashing in your ex-boyfriend’s zombie brains. Each of Bridges’ stories brings levity and humor to a serious examination of our culture. He is a writer who thinks about where we are and where are going, making a clear point of showing us—in numerous and imaginative ways—how we might go wrong.
Justice Inc. is made up of ten stories that expose a different sort of grim Americana. In “Welcome to Omni-Mart,” an orphaned man is adopted into indentured servitude by super-mega retailer Omni-Mart. The store offers a haven of sorts to the brutal outside world, yet it is a colorless, loveless, never-ending Groundhog Day, Office Space, worst-day-at-your-job kind of life. In “The Girlfriend™,” a lonely man purchases a state-of-the-art robot to bring him company, self-confidence, and what he hopes will be a better life. In the book’s titular story, “Justice Inc.,” a man is charged with the task of entertaining and enlightening the public by orchestrating executions of terrorists who have been cloned specifically for this purpose. And in “The Time Warp Café,” Bridges examines a life left behind because the narrator refuses to indulge in current technology and continues to age.
While these stories and others make up the longer pieces in the group, Justice Inc. contains a number of flash fiction stories, which offer an introduction of sorts to their longer accompaniments. In “Texting the Apocalypse,” a young girl writes, “cool. just a sec. my parentz r totly freakin out abowt the zombies…” and “did you see the skirt jenny wore for the genocide?” This tone carries into the larger story to some degree but each piece feels entirely fresh and new. The short pieces prepare the reader for what is to come in a cohesive way.
A book of stories about clones, robots, dystopias, zombies, and our culture’s dismal future runs the risk of being tired, as strange as that might sound. As readers we are well versed in worldwide destruction and post-apocalyptic landscapes. But Dale Bridges does something unique. He examines our moral compass by exposing the trite and superficial issues each of us worries about: how well we are aging, work-status, sex, the cute girl from HR—but he uncovers the human element inside these concerns. There is a profound way to care about growing old, or work ambitions, or the cute girl from HR. Bridges ties readers to big picture issues about our culture’s trajectory. His characters are relatable and flawed. They might live in world where a company called Smith & Johnson owns a patent on the human soul and two Super Bowl broadcasters can’t seem to find a reason to care about it, but we all live in a world with where we sometimes ignore serious issues in place of our everyday concerns. Bridges is humorously warning us to pay attention to that balance. He shows that we run the risk of losing ourselves.
In a recent interview I asked Bridges about writing from a young woman’s point of view. He had this to say: “I think young women are the most interesting literary characters out there right now, but they’re seldom written with enough complexity and depth. We try to protect them, but they don’t need our protection; they need to be heard.” He is very clearly the kind of writer who writes to entertain, but thinks about his message and how that message is delivered. At times Justice Inc. feels almost too casual. It’s easy to lose yourself in the flippant characters and colorful (yet doomed) worlds Bridges has so fully imagined—except there is a feeling that permeates these stories that grounds readers to a certain, and very specific, end. There is a literary quality to his work that gives meaning to ideas that might otherwise be just for fun. Bridges’ writing is something to enjoy, but it also forces us to take a cold hard look in the mirror.
– Kim Winternheimer’s work has appeared through Tin House, The Oregonian, Gigantic Magazine, theNewerYork, and Portland Monthly among many others. She is the founding editor of The Masters Review and lives in Portland, Oregon.