Christian Kiefer is smart. He has a PhD in American literature and teaches at American River College in Sacramento. His mentors are T.C. Boyle, Richard Ford, Pam Houston and Denis Johnson, who he thanks in the acknowledgements for his second novel, The Animals.
The Animals is so good, it’s hard to be smart about it. It’s got the lyrical language of top-tier literary fiction with the compulsive readability of a blood-pumping crime novel. It makes you think and feel. Kirkus calls it “devastatingly beautiful,” and says, “This novel embodies why we write and why we read,” which is a great start.
It begins: “What you have come for is death. You might try to convince yourself otherwise but there is no truth but the truth that is, and yet still you will come down the mountain, down from the animals, as if you might encounter something other than what you already know will be, your hope the clinging desires of a fool. History drags behind you even now. As if the end has not already begun. As if you might clear every decision you have made and every decision you will yet make. The world in its bubble and you holding fast to its slick interior as if to the blood-pumped safety of a womb, the animals watching you all the while.”
Bill Reed runs a wildlife refuge in rural Idaho—“the animals,” as his veterinarian girlfriend’s young son calls it. His charges include maimed raptors, a wolf, porcupines, raccoons and a blind grizzly named Majer, who’s more like a friend. Occasionally called upon to dispatch a car-injured quadruped (“the highway was an abattoir,” Kiefer writes), he leads an otherwise uneventful life in a peaceful place.
“Human beings, like animals, exist in a particular environment that forms a bubble around them,” Kiefer says. “That environment is formed by biology and also by experiences, and by perception and sensory information—all this stuff that comes into us and out of us as we move through the world. The thing I wanted to do with this book was play with the idea of whether or not you can change that bubble, and in changing that bubble you can change yourself.”
You see, Bill didn’t always live in the woods. And his last best friend wasn’t a bear.
Rick grew up in the same tiny trailer park as Bill, in Battle Mountain, Nevada—a fellow witness to inherent alcoholism, domestic violence and untimely death. As young men, they moved to Reno, the big city, where their fresh start soon soured.
They were “...both of them drunk on Mad Dog and sometimes stoned and later still high on diet pills and occasionally on cocaine, all of it moving around them and they a part of that flow because they were in the city now, the Biggest Little City in the World, and it was, in comparison to everything they had known, like stepping into the center of a lightbulb and grasping the hot glowing electric filament,” he writes.
A gambling problem led to gangster problems, bad decisions and ugly ones. A botched heist sent Rick to prison for a long time.
The Animals is told in two times, 1996 and 1984. As narratives converge, a palpable sense of danger crescendos, hitting its high as Rick, recently released, appears in Idaho seeking reparation.
“... I came up here thinking that if I saw you it might make sense to me. What you did. Who you are,” Kiefer writes. “All the fucking lies you told me. My mom. All the shit I did in prison. Everything.”
As Rick’s presence endangers all Bill holds dear, forcing him to reconcile past decisions with those he must now make to defend his life, The Animals swiftly builds to a provocative, pulse-quickening showdown.
“A good book tells you a story and gives you something to think about. James Wood says that being a reader of fiction makes us better noticers of life. Hopefully The Animals does that and shakes the reader enough that they’re able to feel like what they’re noticing is themselves moving through life,” Kiefer says. “As weirdly introspective and self-helpy as we are as a culture, we don’t spend a lot of time inquiring as to the nature of the self, except as something that’s broken and needs to get fixed—as if it’s a piece of machinery. It’s not a piece of machinery, it’s you.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.