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Tales of the ridiculous and the real

The journey through Tyler Barton’s new collection of short stories is sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny and often strange. It’s also the sort of trip that makes you want to linger a bit and study your surroundings for pieces you want to hold in your memory.

Twenty stories comprise “Eternal Night at the Nature Museum,” which was released by Sarabande Books in November, and the stories cover a broad range in terms of length, scope and impact. What they have in common is the inventive writing and offbeat compassion of an author who seems fully committed to his never-a-dullmoment approach. “I like to think of my writing as ‘ridiculous realism.’ Everything in my stories could literally happen in the rules of our world, but some of the wilder stuff probably wouldn't, because it is quite out there,” said Barton, a product of the creative writing MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “Seeing the world this way makes it seem like life is charged with possibility. That's the way I want to go through each day.”

In the weeks before its release, the book won praise in Publishers Weekly and in the notoriously fickle Kirkus Reviews. Those early reviews called attention to the eccentric characters populating these stories. Barton’s protagonists include a former radio shock jock who gets wrapped up in a cult-like demolition derby scene (in “Once Nothing, Twice Shatter”), and a nature museum worker who is goaded by a child in a Darth Vader costume to attempt the rescue of a halfeaten fish in one of the displays (in “Iowa Darter”). But Barton’s ridiculous realism stretches across its own spectrum. Stories on the closerto- ordinary end inc lude “ The Idler,” about a woman so annoyed by an idling pickup truck outside her home that she goes to confront the driver and winds up climbing in for a night’s adventure, and “Of a Whole Body (Passing Through),” featuring a cast of seniors who test the constraints of old age within the confines of an assisted-living facility.

The latter story shows Barton at his best. Working with material that easily could tip into saccharine territory, he instead allows us glimpses of residents and staff who seem three-dimensional — thoughtful and clever but also flawed and complex. Take, for example, the complicated December-December romance of Marcia and Allan. When Allan proposes, Marcia declines by writing “No” on a piece of paper and underlining it twice.

Barton concludes the brief scene this way: “Allan closes the invisible box on the invisible ring, and staggers back to his feet. ‘Touch me,’ Marcia writes. And outside, pulling bags of birdseed from her trunk, the program manager notices Allan obeying.”

The story is one where Barton’s connection to Mankato comes to the surface. During his time as a student in the MFA program, Barton became an active member of the local literary community. He helped run Writers Bloc, an open mic reading series, and volunteered in a writing program at a local assisted-living facility, among other things.

Now living in Lancaster, PA, Barton completed his degree at MSU in 2018, and he is generous in expressing gratitude to many people he encountered there, including faculty members Robin Becker, Geoff Herbach, Richard Robbins, Richard Terrill, Diana Joseph, Roger Sheffer and Chris McCormick.

“The stories are wildly different in subject, voice, tone, style, and structure, and this is evidence of the very diverse course load provided by the professors I worked with,” Barton said. “I think my time at Mankato allowed me to recognize and accept my own voice, which is one where fiction reads more like poetry than it does like a television show.”

Nick Healy is an author and freelance writer in Mankato.

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