Hidden wildlife

August 10, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Fauna. Alissa York; $29.95 cloth 978-0-307-35789-2, 376 pp., Random House Canada.

Predation is a recurring theme in the fiction of Alissa York. Her debut novel, 2002’s Mercy, opens with a cow being slaughtered, and contains scenes involving an owl attack in a bog and a pack of feral dogs. Her follow-up, the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted 2007 novel Effigy, has at its centre a woman named Dorrie, the fourth wife of the vicious Mormon horse breeder Erasmus Hammer, who dreams she is a crow, circling over scenes of violence and horror:

Being crow, I should make my way back to the killing field. I might have to haunt the margins for a time if the humans are still at work. On my last circuit I winged all the way back to the circled wagons. Between here and there, the dog man’s pack hunkered over the dead. They were stripping the bodies, revealing even the blue-white underskins of their feet. One yanked a glitter-string from a female’s wrist. One plucked shimmer-discs from an overskin he’d peeled away. The crow eye sparked and buzzed.

The impressionistic scene being described is that of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, an 1857 slaughter of a wagon train by a group of Utah Mormons and Paiute natives. Witnessing the grisly tableau from her crow’s-eye view, Dorrie imagines the relationship between the natural predation of the wild and the more vicious human kind:

See how the humans cache their kill, how they bow and scrape, swinging their heavy tools. Soon shallow patches have been scratched, and the dragging of bodies begins. Like weasels hoarding mice, they pile dead upon dead, dusting them with not enough earth to dissuade a fox kit. Some do even less, dumping corpses in gullies and concealing them with clumps of grass.

In her waking hours, Dorrie is much prized by her husband for her skill as a taxidermist; she takes the animals that Erasmus kills for sport and returns them to a lifelike state. At the novel’s opening, Erasmus brings Dorrie the bodies of a family of wolves he has killed. As the book progresses, a recurring leitmotif is the presence of a lone wolf scouring the Hammer homestead, trying to locate his lost pack.

The uneasy relationship between wildlife and the humans who prey on it reasserts itself in York’s latest novel, Fauna. The setting has shifted from 19th-century Utah to present-day Toronto, and in place of Erasmus there is Darius, a troubled young man who, calling himself “Coyote Cop,” blogs about what he perceives to be the scourge of the city’s coyote population. His blog posts, which become ever more violent and provocative, attract the attention of Stephen, an ex-soldier who suffered a heart virus while on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Stephen’s medical condition cut short his military service; he now spends his days working at Howell Auto Wreckers, a wrecking yard in the Don Valley ravine that does double duty as an ad hoc animal sanctuary.

The sanctuary serves as the gathering point for the book’s cast of human misfits: in addition to Stephen and Guy, who owns the property, there is Edal, a federal wildlife officer currently on stress leave; Lily, a homeless girl who prowls the city at night rescuing birds that have flown into the lighted buildings of the downtown core; and Kate, a worker at the Annex Canine Rehabilitation Centre.

Each of the characters bears a wound or an absence of some sort. Some wounds, like Stephen’s defective heart, are physical; others are emotional; still others, a combination of the two. Lily cuts herself to mark the days she’s been on the streets: “Tonight being her fifty-seventh night of freedom, she’s partway into a group of five. The fifth cuts are the tricky ones, slashing down across the previous four. They require a deeper breath, an extra-steady hand.” Kate is trying to recover from the death of her lover, Lou-Lou, from “a massive brain aneurysm.” Since Lou-Lou’s death, Kate, who had never been able to confess the true nature of her relationship to her conservative parents, “had entered an underwater world,” where she “was walking, sitting, lying on the ocean floor.” Kate and Lily find solace with each other, impelled by their mutual love of dogs.

The character with the most shattering home life is Darius, whose troubled mother Faye dies after a fall in the bathtub, leaving him in the custody of his grandmother and his religious zealot grandfather, who insists that an extra place be set at the dinner table for the Son of God: “Every time Grandmother stood up to clear, she took Jesus’s full plate first, carrying it in both hands and tipping the untouched portion into the garbage pail. It hardly seemed fair, given that Darius had to eat every scrap he was served.” Darius’s grandfather’s spine is defective and he needs his wife to tie a board to his back in order to stand straight, something Darius witnesses one night when he gets up to go to the bathroom.

The grandfather’s peculiar affliction and his obsession with Jesus recall the Southern grotesques of Flannery O’Connor, a writer York acknowledges as an influence on her own work. But the grandfather – who keeps a spare belt on hand for the specific purpose of beating his wife and grandson – is one of the few O’Connoresque characters in Fauna; unlike York’s previous two novels, the element of Southern Gothicism is downplayed here. This is not to suggest that Fauna is by any stretch ordinary: on the contrary, with its band of forgotten misfits, its setting in the literal hidden valleys of Toronto, and sections that are narrated from the perspective of various animals (foxes, skunks, coyotes), Fauna is passing strange, and all the more bracing because of it. Although it invokes classics of animal lore – among them The Jungle Book, Watership Down, and Wild Animals I Have Known – it is startlingly original in its approach and its execution.

York’s writing, as always, is pristine, and over the course of three novels she has developed an admirable ability to juggle multiple perspectives and plotlines. However, the novel’s resolution is too neat to be entirely satisfying. The various storylines come to conclusions that are too tidy, and when the reason for Darius’s antipathy toward coyotes finally becomes apparent, the psychology involved is too simple to be entirely credible. Moreover, a number of characters – a stripper Stephen chances upon in the park one day, the restaurateur who gives Lily a job as a “dish pig” – appear in the novel fleetingly, only to vanish again without any payoff.

Still, Fauna represents a simultaneous extension of recurring themes and an intriguing departure for York. It is structurally ambitious and the author displays a tight control over her language and patterns of metaphor. The novel falters in its final stages, but that in no way diminishes the general enjoyment the story offers. York has written a truly odd book; it is a testament to her skill as a writer that it works as well as it does.

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