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The Animals


The Animals

Don’t let THE ANIMALS get past you. The author is Christian Kiefer, who is not (yet) a household name, with a somewhat generic though very appropriate title that you might mistake for a children’s book. It’s a haunting, darkly exquisite piece of rural noir that will chill you from its somewhat sedate beginning to its apocalyptic-like ending.

Bill Reed is the first character we meet here. As the book opens, he is running an unlicensed but somewhat popular facility that is a cross between a wildlife preserve and a zoo. It is merely a few pages into the story that we have an inkling of what Bill might be made of when he assumes a duty that is unpleasant but necessary. However, there is much more to him than his reluctance yet fortitude in performing a work of mercy.

"...a haunting, darkly exquisite piece of rural noir that will chill you from its somewhat sedate beginning to its apocalyptic-like ending.... You must read what is sure to be on many “Best of” lists for 2015."

As the narrative alternates between 1996 (the book’s present) and the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, we learn that Bill --- who is not a “Bill” --- has had a troubled history. He eventually left Reno, Nevada, when his gambling addiction got much the better of him, retreating to the remote shelter that his uncle had established for wounded wild animals. Ultimately, he inherited the preserve upon his uncle’s death. Since then, he has found peace there, establishing a kinship with his charges and a relationship with Grace, an almost too-good-to-be-true veterinarian who tends to the animals as needed.

Two events turn Bill’s life upside down. One is a by-the-book Fish and Wildlife officer who is politely but firmly insistent that his shelter is illegally harboring a number of animals that should be roaming free, regardless of whether or not they can survive in the wild. The other is the arrival of Rick, a lifelong friend of Bill’s who is fresh out of a 12-year prison stint and has come to collect on a debt that he feels is due and owing to him from Bill. Kiefer slowly and exquisitely reveals the what, why and how of Rick’s visit. Rick will not be denied, and he is honed to a razor sharpness by his experiences in his incarceration. As a sudden and unexpected blizzard descends upon the rural retreat that Bill has called his own, he finds that the fragile peace he has made with the world and himself is about to be irrevocably changed, threatening everything he loves and perhaps with the best of reasons.

Have we seen variations of this plot before? Absolutely. However, two things separate THE ANIMALS from the 1950s drug store paperbacks that dealt out revenge and murder in rapid-fire doses. One is Kiefer’s style, which is by turns and at times simultaneously unflinching and poetic. I couldn’t read the novel fast enough, yet there were passages that I made myself read over and over again. The first of these would be Part III of the book, which consists of a single chapter and is quietly cosmic in scope. I can’t imagine any college educator reading those few pages and then not holding them up to their charges as an example of how the job of writing literature is properly performed. The other is the subtle manner in which Kiefer builds and then entrenches your expectations before beginning the slow and uneasy task of deconstructing them. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen this done so well.

I’ve read two novels since finishing THE ANIMALS, and I’m still coming to grips with it. At one point, I almost quit reading it, due to my own shortcomings rather than any of Kiefer’s. I’m a softy (but don’t tell anyone), and Kiefer simply did his job almost too well for my sensibilities. The outcome, though, was never in doubt. You must read what is sure to be on many “Best of” lists for 2015.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 26, 2015

The Animals
by Christian Kiefer