Menace at the edge of sanctuary

In “The Animals,” a wildlife rescuer faces his ugly past.

 

“My god that you could walk through such a landscape. My god that such a landscape existed anywhere but in your dreams. And yet here it was.” California-based novelist Christian Kiefer creates a gorgeous, desolate tableau in which his characters are bewitched by natural beauty even as they’re betrayed by human actions, especially their own.

Wildlife rescuer Bill Reed and his unofficial Idaho sanctuary are in peril as The Animals begins, when the district game warden threatens to close the place down, citing federal environmental rules and regulations. Meanwhile, Bill’s nightmarish past catches up with him, when Rick, who was once his closest friend, is released from a long stretch in prison. The two were inseparable during their bleak childhoods in Battle Mountain, Nevada, enduring family tragedies and alcoholic parents. Together, they later escaped to Reno, only to get lost in dead-end jobs, drugs and trouble with the law. Now, Rick has returned in search of the money they netted in a long-ago burglary. Or perhaps it’s really vengeance he wants; the threat of violence hovers over the novel like a pall.

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What solace there is comes by way of Bill’s animals, all of them once wild, most now recovering from various traumas in cages or enclosures, yet still pulsing with life. Bill has fled his gambling addiction and subsequent debt, seeking redemption in a solitary life in the woods. “A geography of snowed-over silence. Elk would come down through the trees on their way to the meadows in the south, their calls echoing up from those blank white plains.”

Kiefer’s narrative voice recalls that of Faulkner, complete with a blind bear named “Majer.” The bear’s presence haunts the reader; from the beginning, we fear for Majer’s life. Bill’s harsh and precarious world is increasingly endangered, and as the novel unfolds, our fears are realized in unpredictable ways and with unforeseen consequences.

Lovers of wilderness and of words will find both pleasure and sorrow in the rich, lyrical sentences of The Animals. “Were a fox to step out from behind the trees and speak in human words, or a raven to descend wearing a suit coat and a top hat, you would not have been surprised. Worlds overlapping.”

The Animals: A Novel
Christian Kiefer
320 pages,
softcover: $15.95.
Liveright, 2016.

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