A Southern Goth-Ick

Kristen Arnett is one my favorite people to follow on Twitter. She’s a librarian and author whose sharp-witted posts are laced with a healthy dose of dark humor. Whether she is talking about interactions at her library, the writing process, love for her local 7-11 or even non-convenience-store-centered relationships, her posts leave me cackling (and squirming when they hit too close to home). So it was no surprise that I devoured her exquisite and unsettling debut novel, Mostly Dead Things

2d4c8fb365e1620f-ARNETTheadshotcolor2017Mostly Dead Things follows Jessa, a taxidermist in central Florida, whose life is teetering on the precipice. The main thread of the story finds Jessa struggling in the wake of her father’s suicide. Though her father was in many ways a negligent parent to Jessa, he was also a massive presence in her life. He taught her that taxidermy is more than a grisly chore, that there is art in taking dead animals and recreating moments that capture the full beauty of their lives. He also passed her the routine, expectations, and burdens that came to define her life. After finding his dead body and dealing with the mess he left behind, Jessa is eager to bury herself in her work, focusing on the dead things she can fix not the gaping wounds in her own psyche. She drinks too much, limits relationships to a steady stream of casual hook-ups and struggles in vain to claw free from the ghosts of her past.

Jessa finds no solace with her surviving family members. She has long had a complicated relationship with her brother, Milo. They share a deep almost unspeakable pain that traces back to the day that Milo’s wife, Brynn, abandoned him and their children. Before Brynn was Milo’s wife, she was Jessa’s best friend and secret lover. This dynamic did not change when Milo and Brynn wed. Jessa loved Brynn deeply and Brynn seemed to enjoy both siblings’ adoration and attention. Though Jessa helps take care of Milo’s two children, their own relations remain tenuous at best. 

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Jessa’s mother is a different issue altogether. Following her husband’s death, she has found solace in creating new displays out of his taxidermy projects. These works sexualize and contort the animals in strange and grotesque ways. For Jessa this upsetting and disrespectful treatment of her father’s work is incomprehensible and borders on blasphemy. And this is just where Jessa’s troubles begin. Her mother begins to work with a local gallery owner to display her art for a wider audience. Jessa is determined to stop this show, but is also slipping into a contentious romantic relationship with the gallery owner. Jessa continues to drink too much and struggles to keep her business afloat, while her niece and nephew embrace the family business with too much enthusiasm and too little concern for laws and ethics. With her mother’s gallery opening fast approaching and old wounds reopening in all of her relationships, Jessa must figure out how to regain some semblance of control and balance in her increasingly messy life.  

I’m a pretty squeamish guy and I will admit that this book includes descriptions of the taxidermy process that were outside my comfort zone. Yet even the goriest narratives felt natural and well-placed coming through Jessa’s voice. Arnett does not hold back. Her descriptions of love, sex, aging, and Jessa’s work are raw and often glamorless. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Jessa has endured years of emotional abuse at the hands of both her father and Brynn, and has suffered dearly as a result. With her wry voice and unique humor, it is impossible not to root for Jessa even at her lowest lows. And it is equally difficult to resist marveling at Arnett’s wrenching but sardonic meditations on love, loss, and abandonment and her ability to make both the saddest and the grossest of situations laugh-till-you-cry hilarious. Arnett recently tweeted a one-star review of her book that simply read “Dead Animals.” So I will end by saying five stars: dead animals.

Anxiety, Hell’s Angels and Haiku

It’s all there in Criminals: My Family’s Life on Both Sides of the Law by Robert Siegel.

What’s the key thing writers need the most? Raw material of course. Author Robert Anthony Siegel has a goldmine of raw material living in a New York City duplex with his parents, Stanley and Frances, and trying to make sense of his childhood.

Dad is a charismatic criminal defense attorney, bringing all kinds of questionable characters home. Young Robert accompanies his dad to Hell’s Angel’s clubhouse parties and dines with drug dealers and possible murderers.

Mom takes Robert to MoMA and the Whitney to show him paintings by Motherwell and Rothko, to counterbalance Dad’s lowbrow Brooklyn background and make sure there is art and culture in his life.

Complex doesn’t begin to describe Dad. The reason his clients love him is that he is an old-school lawyer, with a gift for story telling in front of the jury and throwing in Shakespeare quotes to boot. He rescues his clients time and time again. Dad’s depression is eased by lots of antidepressants, consuming huge quantities of food and spending money as fast as he gets it – even a duffel bag full of cash (a gift from a grateful client). His depression is especially intense after the DEA bring charges against him and he goes away to prison for a year.

Told in a personal essay style, this memoir is one you can’t put down. At first you feel like you’re careening around roads on the edge of a cliff, but the author’s skillful writing keeps you grounded, entertained and delighted right up to the book’s end. This is a reading experience like no other.

And where does the Haiku come in? Toward the end of the book Robert, who has spent years learning to speak Japanese and to learn about Japanese culture as a way of coping with his life, explains it best in the very touching chapter “Haiku For My Father.” As his father stumbles toward the end of his life, Siegel is reminded of the last haiku of Basho Matsuo, helping him make sense of not only his father’s life, but his own as well. Maybe it even explains the reader’s life also.