Tyler Dunning's A Field Guide to Losing Your Friends is anchored by loss 

In the introduction to his debut collection of essays, Tyler Dunning describes A Field Guide to Losing Your Friends as a coming-of-age collection "depicting my struggle through the simple act of being alive, coexisting, and growing out of a common chaos." Despite outward appearances of an enviable life—a stable upbringing, education, the privileges that come with being a white, heterosexual male—the Belgrade writer has long battled suicidal desires. His portrayal of those internal struggles is harrowing at times, but the wonderful writing in these essays about loss makes it easier to bear.

Dunning sets up the book's impetus in the opening essay, "Lush and Alive." On July 11, 2010, his best friend, Nate Henn, was attending a screening of the FIFA World Cup at a rugby sports center in Uganda when it was bombed by terrorists. Henn was one of 74 people killed that night. Dunning's struggle to come to terms with the loss of his friend was made more difficult because Henn was the only American killed in the attack, which made him a kind of morbid celebrity. Every time Dunning turned on the television, there was Henn, his story being told worldwide.

In an effort to cope, Dunning attempts to climb Longs Peak, the highest point in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, and a summit notorious for claiming lives. Along the way he considers taking his own life, but ultimately retreats, both from the mountain and his own suicidal thoughts.

A Field Guide to Losing Your Friends successfully threads 13 essays into a single overarching narrative. The essays aren't chronological, but they weave and overlap to tell a compelling story. Only one of them, "Brother of Eagle," about a Belgrade character locals call "the Shaman," has been previously published, which makes sense, because the sum of this collection is greater than the parts. That's not a knock on the individual pieces, it's just that they feel more like chapters in a book than standalone works. Without proper context they would likely lose some of their emotional heft.

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A lot of these essays describe Dunning's attempt to hold onto hope. They also detail his experiences with the deaths of other friends, and introduce characters he meets while traveling after Henn's death. We learn that Dunning met Henn when they both worked for a peace organization called Invisible Children, which focused on central Africa. For two years, while employed with the nonprofit, Dunning and Henn traveled all around the country, living out of a van. Dunning also describes people he met at other jobs, working at a resort in Colorado or a museum in San Diego, some of whom inhabit the outer edges of mainstream society—and of mental stability.

The best essay in the collection is "Blood Ties," which opens with the line, "When my dad asked me not to kill myself, standing on top of Homer Young, he asked without asking." The piece explores how different Dunning and his father are, despite their shared genetics, and depicts the difficulties they've faced as a result. The elder Dunning was a small-town sports idol with a mean streak who drank and "beat the shit out of a lot of people," Tyler writes. Tyler's dad struggled during his own parents' divorce, which was announced on the day of his high school graduation, and he fled Montana to collect his thoughts. He returned and, after surviving a near-fatal pickup crash, started the family of which Tyler Dunning is the middle child. How the elder Dunning's worldview collided with Tyler Dunning's nature as a depressed loner is an additional theme to the essay. It is a fine piece of writing.

Though some scenes in A Field Guide to Losing Your Friends are set in the wilderness and Dunning mentions wanting to visit all 59 of America's National Parks, this isn't an "outdoor" book per se. Readers looking for a wilderness adventure sprinkled with ruminations from a gifted writer might be disappointed. The "wilds" found in these essays are only a backdrop, and the stories are as likely to be set in New York City, a trailer park in Montana or the dusty grounds of Burning Man. The real story Tyler Dunning has gifted us with is a raw, honest and compelling account of a man's battle with mental illness. It is a beautiful, at times heartbreaking, inspiration of a book.

Tyler Dunning reads from A Field Guide to Losing Your Friends at Fact & Fiction Sun., June 11, at 2 PM.

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