Is This Man Portland's Best Storyteller?
Standing in front of an audience of hundreds at a Back Fence PDX storytelling event at the Gerding Theater, Arthur Bradford is more excited than nervous. He shifts his weight from one side to the other as he speaks, not unlike a child who can’t wait to tell a secret. “I’m driving east on an Arizona highway in an old station wagon full of all of my belongings and two very large dogs,” he begins. “I pull off near a dirt road that leads down to a river.”
Like many of Bradford’s stories, it’s an innocent enough start, presented with a loping, rural delivery. But when he follows the morbidly obese man with the pornography collection into the trailer behind the burger stand—well, that’s where this Portland author and all-purpose creative personality leaves most of us behind.
“The more willing you are to go against your better instincts of self-preservation, the better your stories will be,” Bradford says.
The 45-year-old established his bona fides via multiple mediums: as a storyteller with an endless number of peculiar, personal experiences; as a documentary filmmaker; and with fiction that delves into the surreal. This month Farrar, Straus, and Giroux releases his second collection of stories, Turtleface and Beyond. In its 12 tales, the first-person narrator comes off as a semipassive accomplice to a series of bizarre shenanigans: a roadside incident with a stray cat, for instance, involves the narrator and his date losing both real and prosthetic limbs.
Despite the hapless-everyman motif in many of Bradford’s stories, a brief overview reveals the author himself to be anything but. In 2002, while teaching video classes at Camp Jabberwocky, a residential camp in Massachusetts for adults with disabilities (where he subsequently became camp director), he created a reality news show hosted by the residents. Early versions caught the eye of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who executive-produced the project as it developed into an HBO documentary and then an MTV series called How’s Your News?. Bradford’s relationship with Parker and Stone led to behind-the-scenes access to film the Emmy-nominated documentary 6 Days to Air, about making an episode of South Park. Along the way, his short stories have appeared in Esquire, Vice, McSweeney’s, and his own 2002 collection, Dogwalker (Knopf), which received high praise from the likes of David Foster Wallace and David Sedaris, who called Bradford “the most outlandish and energetic writer I can think of.”
Throughout his work, sound reason often plays a secondary role in his decisions: the only real choice for him is the one that will make the story better. “I love getting into conversations with strange people,” he says. “If I find myself in a conversation with someone fascinating and off-kilter, I stick that conversation out longer.” As for the guy with the trailer down by the river? From the stage, Bradford manages to look back on him with enough affection to imagine the stranger as an alternate version of himself. And most important, the source of a great story.