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.

Attention Hollywood

It’s been a really great year for YA movie adaptations. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda was made into the charming and sweet (if poorly renamed) Love, Simon. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before which took Netflix by storm. And The Hate U Give was a critical hit at a timely moment. It’s a bit of a reach, but I’d even argue that Black Panther was a YA adaptation considering where we shelve the comics. But am I satisfied? Never! I want to see more of my favorite characters head to the screen so I can fret that Hollywood will ruin them and rejoice the few times that they do not. Luckily for all the producers, project developers, and screen writers out there, I’m happy to do the leg work for them. I want Nic Stone’s Odd One Out to be the next big thing.

81A39u7iP5LOdd One Out follows three teens, Courtney, Jupiter, and Rae, each of whom narrates a section of the book. Courtney is the first narrator. A high school basketball phenom, he lost his father to a tragic accident years ago and lives with his single mother. He is well-adjusted, kind, and introspective. He is also secretly, hopelessly, and madly in love with Jupiter, his longtime best friend. Jupiter is  quick-witted, Freddy Mercury obsessed, and an engaged activist and community leader. Though Courtney and Jupiter share almost everything, he can’t bring himself to tell her about his feelings. In addition to risking their friendship, it would be an exercise in futility. Though Jupiter deeply loves Courtney, it could never be romantic. Jupiter is gay.

As the book follows Jupiter and Courtney into their junior year of high school, they are thrown a curveball. Rae is a bright, bubbly, and endearing student who has just moved to town and transferred to their school. She quickly becomes an integral member of their group, but she also creates the friction that might destroy their friendship. From the moment Rae shows up it is clear that Jupiter has feelings for her. And as Courtney desperately attempts to get over Jupiter, he begins to like Rae as well. And Rae? Rae might just be falling for both of them! I hesitate to use the phrase “love triangle” because it feels cheap and hackneyed, but if the shoe fits….

What follows is a fun, dramatic, and sometimes stressful series of adventures and misunderstanding for these three teens, including a strange but emotionally resonant side story featuring a long-forgotten children’s entertainer. I fell deeply in love with all of the characters in this book, and I lived and died with their every triumph and defeat. But Stone’s work is also a deep, moving, and well constructed consideration of identity, sexuality, and the expectations placed on teens. In the author’s note, Stone explains why she wrote Odd One Out:

“It’s a book I needed at twelve, when I was skittish at slumber parties and worried about playing truth-or-dare because I didn’t want the other girls to know about the fire I felt below my navel when I watched them kiss each other and stuff. I needed it at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, when I would change for cheer practice separate from the other girls because I didn’t want anybody to catch me looking. (Flee temptation! My Bible said.) I needed it at twenty-one, when trying to navigate intense romantic feelings for a female friend. And I need it now as I continue to waffle between labels. (Am I bisexual? Pansexual? Queer? Herteroflexible? All of the above? None of the above?)”

I’m confident that it’s still a book that tweens, teens, new adults, and grown-ass adults still need, whether they’re questioning their own identities or could just use a window into the lives of others to build empathy and be better allies. Of course on top of all that, it is also a fun, satisfying, and smart story that I could not put down. Now someone make me my damn movie.