“Spillway” by Kim Bradley

The captivating tales in Kim Bradley’s award-winning Spillway (Stephen F. Austin State University Press 2022) are stunning, well-crafted pieces that display the power of short stories at their finest. Bradley writes with compassion and insight about a class of people no doubt considered outcasts, and her empathy and understanding of her characters form the back-bone of the appeal in these tales. Another component of that appeal is her careful use of poetic devices to enrich the stories and make reading them a sheer delight. There are no wasted words in Spillway’s tales with their sharp focus and precise, penetrating vision. With their cumulative intensity, these are stories whose vivid, though often lost, people will linger in mind long after the pages of the book are closed.

Spillway, recently selected as a 2022 Silver medalist in the Florida Book Awards, spins stories of people trapped by their own lives and mistakes as well as by random chance—men, women and teens looking for the way out, scrambling for their own kind of redemption perhaps, or at least a way to live within their narrow worlds. Taking place variously in north Florida, especially St. Augustine, and the gritty, red-clay backwoods and small towns of Alabama, the nine stories pit their people against long-odds while anger and tenderness play out with equal force. While often misguided, no one is really evil, but that doesn’t necessarily save them.

The characters in these stories run a gamut—a recently released inmate and her scam queen sister on a collision course, a grounded crop duster pilot dismayed by real estate development in his farming community and a cantankerous older man bedeviled by Christian camp kids and a half-feral girl. Others include a widower visited both by his dead wife and a large bull alligator, a teen girl living with her grandmother who briefly confronts the mother who left her, another mother who sought the son she abandoned. Given Bradley unerring talent, readers get to know these people in just a few quick pages. Yet knowing them isn’t enough as Bradley makes the readers care as her characters navigate their puzzling worlds, often with grave results as they misstep.

Each story starts with a knock-out first sentence, immediately capturing the reader’s attention and curiosity. For example, in “Like She Stole It,” she begins with this:

Soon as Darcy skipped out on the rent, her landlord chain-sawed fifty feet of overgrown bay laurel from the lakefront cottage, exposing wide-eyed windows and a long-neglected leaning porch, allowing me ample views of my guilt.

And in “Visitation,” Bradley opens with this vivid description:

From the stained-glass window of Second Baptist Church in East Mozelle, Alabama, John the Baptist, bloody hair raging with serpents and fiery swords, glared down at Meredith Gentry with a wild look of disgust.

Passages in these stories rival poetry, and Bradley makes excellent use of similes to create both a mood and a scene. In “Grounded,” the crop duster “nursed a cup of coffee at Johnny’s Diner like a bird of prey with his wings clipped.” In “Alligator,” in the long recovery after a devastating hurricane, a “shrimp boat tacked in the channel raised its trawl nets like an anhinga’s wings outstretched to dry.”

These pages are alive, also, with sounds and evocative senses to further pull readers into the scene. In “How to Draw a Circle,” birds in an aviary “squawked at the approaching nightfall as if they meant to battle the setting sun.” In “Alligator,” the “seductive song” of a bull gator’s mating call “became a chainsaw gargle of bass notes and clanking cans.” In other stories, a hint of chlorine from a baptism pool and the scent of graham crackers and grape juice invite readers into the rooms of a small-town church, where hymns with “their clanky cords and pleading stanzas” provide the soundtrack. Within Bradley’s excellent world building, we see, hear, feel, and taste the landscapes of her people. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is in “Alligator,” where in a story rich with magical realism, she describes the harsh aftermath of a hurricane.

Before the category-four hurricane, St. Augustine had been the stuff of glossy brochures—tidy mansions once home to sea captains and railroad tycoons, water oaks garnished with Spanish moss. Then, the sea rose. White caps battered the masonry fort that centuries ago guarded against British raids and shameless pirates. Dislodged docks and barnacled pilings floated ashore. Sailboard masts lodged on ruined lawns like flags to uncharted territory. Now, the historic city was a sinking city of five-foot water marks and drowned cats.

While plots, conflicts, and tensions are all present or roiling beneath the surface in the stories, the characters, so often trapped in their constrained realms, dominate. Several stories deal with mothers who’ve abandoned their children, while others deal with siblings caring for disabled younger brothers. In one especially tender story, “Hurricane Machine,” an older brother is faced with caring for a disruptive mentally ill younger brother at the same time he is trying to earn a meager living and deal with an ex-girlfriend. He’s trapped, but he remains loving. When the mentally disabled boy is hurt, his older brother wraps him in a bedspread and rocks him back and forth with the tenderness of a mother. It is these small incidents, told with such care, that bring each of the nine stories to full life and make Spillway a true treasure of a book.

Kim Bradley

The landscapes Kim Bradley writes about in Spillway—North Florida and South Alabama—are familiar to her, as reflected by the accuracy and honesty of her descriptions. Bradley grew up in Monroeville, AL, and graduated from Auburn University and University of New Orleans with an MFA, and now teaches creative writing at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL.


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