Today we’re going to do something a little bit different here on Eleven and a Half Years of Books. We mentioned in our initial posting that we might deviate from our normal format from time to time, i.e. not just reviewing a book from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. One thing we said we might do is occasionally look at a book that isn’t from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.
That’s exactly what we’re doing today. We decided to take a brief break from our usual format and talk about Dead Animals by CS DeWildt (Martian Lit August 2013; $9.99 paperback, $4.99 Kindle).
I was already interested in Martian Lit before hearing about this book, myself having had a story recently published in their journal and having gotten a peek at their upcoming release of Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands by Nathaniel Tower. I was even more interested when I heard they were releasing work by CS DeWildt. Anyone who is familiar with his novella Candy and Cigarettes won’t have to wonder why.
Anyway, I finally got a chance to read Dead Animals and I dug it enough that I thought we’d take a day on here to talk about it. We good with that? Oh, that’s right…you can’t answer until after I post. Guess we’ll just have to go for it and see.
The aspect I love best about the short pieces in Dead Animals is the contrast between the brutal portions of the world DeWildt gives life to and the delicately beautiful point of significance revealed in a character. The brutality is grittily stated, but the point of significance isn’t belabored. It could almost escape you, but lets you hold on for just long enough to marvel at it. The effect is really well done.
Let’s take a look at a bit from “That Boy Got Dynamite in His Hands” by way of example:
“You want to die, Shit Eater?” Bryan said. He looked at me as if to access my complicacy, to wrangle me further in with some personal insult, but I closed my eyes and he dismissed me, putting his attention back on Harold. He lifted the hoe to his shoulder. “I’m killing frogs. I’ll kill a couple big faggy ones too.” And we saw the pile, or I saw it. I felt that Harold had known all along what Bryan was doing. I stared at the pile of green death for a long time, there must have been at least thirty frogs, mutilated, spilling their guts and drying out in the last of the summer sun. The flies were buzzing, lighting upon the bounty and flying off again when their tiny hairs were touched by threat of a stray breeze.
After Harold acts, tossing a lit M-80 to mutilate the frog-killing psychopath Bryan, the character’s return to Harold’s home. The narrator mistakes the following, thinking it’s about what Harold did to Bryan, not connecting this to Harold’s highly depressed father who they left back at the house:
As we hit the edge of the yard, Harold’s mom hit the front door, crossed the yard and ran down the drive to meet us, crying for Harold. Her car remained where it had been and I knew she should have been at work. The distance between Harold’s mom and me seemed to be unbridgeable, like some timeless, spaceless void where beings saw each other, moved toward one another, but were never quite able to reach. It was a hell and I saw the hand again, the last finger falling away and I knew it was what I deserved. As she took Harold into her arms I saw the ambulance, partially hidden by the curve in the blacktop and the purple dogwood that had just begun dropping its leaved. Did they bring Bryan here? Evidence of what we’d done in case we tried to deny it?
I think you can see what I mean: the disgusting slaughter of the frogs and the reader’s aching knowledge of what the narrator doesn’t realize. Many of these stories manage to pull off this effect, this contrast between the horror that is the world and the (sometimes heartbreaking) beauty that somehow manages to exist within it.
Stepping beyond this aspect, though, the stories of Dead Animals contain solid writing. Tangibly evoked settings, fully developed human characters in well-chosen brief moments, there is little not to like. There is a lot that can be disturbing in these stories, but if you check out Dead Animals I don’t think you’ll be able to argue that you weren’t moved. It certainly does that.