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Dead Cats: And Other Reflections on Parenthood


Dead Cats: And Other Reflections on Parenthood

Talk about a book that's hard to describe. Jesse McKinnell has accomplished that with his first novel, DEAD CATS. It is a fever dream of a story with a decidedly unreliable narrator who gets more and more left of center as the action continues to ramp up. McKinnell has cleverly hidden several themes and messages amidst this parable --- the examination and definition of wealth; the exploration of masculinity and what it means to be both a man and head of the household; and a serious look at the nature of fatherhood and what it means to be more than just a parent.

Joel Peterson has it all: an upper middle-class home in a wealthy Maine neighborhood, a great six-figure career as a respected dentist, a wife, two young daughters and a cat. Ironically, it's the cat that starts Joel's spectacular decline. One day, he is backing the car out of the driveway when he accidentally runs over Friskers. The family turns on Joel in a serious manner. His wife takes the dead cat incident as an opportunity to unleash all of her disdain for him.

"DEAD CATS is an unpredictable read that is oddly compelling at times and at others quite depressing.... This is a promising start for Jesse McKinnell, who deserves respect for turning out something truly original for his debut novel."

It starts with Joel's banishment to the guest room above their garage. It then devolves into full divorce proceedings in which his wife and daughters testify against him, revealing all the cracks in his armor as an imperfect husband and father. His cheaply bought attorney does not have much to work with, especially when Joel gets on the stand and begins talking to imaginary figures. Once divorce seems imminent, he tries to focus on his dental career. This quickly goes south when Joel, preoccupied with family events and high on medication, conducts a painful procedure on a patient to whom he forgets to give novocaine.

Joel is forced to move from the guest room and seek new living arrangements. He finds his credit cards and bank accounts all frozen. He is under investigation for malpractice, and his license to practice dentistry is suspended. He is now hooked on lidocaine, which he mixes with regular tokes of marijuana. It is at this point that he is greeted with the presence of a guardian angel in the form of Kurt Cobain. Yes, the late lead singer of Nirvana is now accompanying Joel wherever he goes and often providing him with advice via repeated stanzas from some of his most famous lyrics.

Since Joel’s last toxicology report from the authorities came back positive, there is no chance of him getting back into his practice. A homeless shelter and his vehicle seem to be the only places Joel will be calling home --- and he needs to make sure there is space for his new friend. He looks woefully at Kurt during one of their dour moments, and the singer responds in kind: “All alone is all we are.” The one thing getting Joel through these difficult times is the deluded dream that one day he will return to his role as husband and father and try to get things right with his family. He almost feels like it is his manly duty to do so, making this story, which is surrounded by dark humor, feel tragic-comic and oddly inspiring.

I am a huge Kurt Cobain fan who believes there has not been any meaningful lyrics written in modern music since his suicide 24 years ago. His presence in the story is a compelling one, and fans will eagerly continue reading just to see what Kurt does and says next. He turns to Joel at one point and states, “My whole existence is for your amusement and that is why I'm here with you.” True or not, Joel welcomes the company of one of his idols during the toughest times of his life.

DEAD CATS is an unpredictable read that is oddly compelling at times and at others quite depressing. It is depressing because the reader will clearly recognize that there is no digging out of the hole Joel is in, no matter how witty or clever his dialogue may be with both the imaginary and real characters he comes across. This is a promising start for Jesse McKinnell, who deserves respect for turning out something truly original for his debut novel.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on September 28, 2018

Dead Cats: And Other Reflections on Parenthood
by Jesse McKinnell

  • Publication Date: May 2, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor
  • Paperback: 218 pages
  • Publisher: Shine Box Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0692101853
  • ISBN-13: 9780692101858