Book review: “The Animals,” by Christian Keifer
Christian Kiefer’s second novel, “The Animals,” is the startling story of Bill Reed, a humble man who lives a humble existence in the untamed wilderness of northern Idaho. His work, managing a struggling wildlife sanctuary, has proven to be fulfilling, and the prospect of marrying the local veterinarian has given our brooding protagonist something resembling hope. It is a fine life, one that has given Bill the opportunity to bury his demons for good. Then there is a phone call, and Bill’s forgotten past comes roaring back at him with violent force. It is Rick, Bill’s childhood comrade and now sworn enemy, newly released from prison. Rick is angry, he wants his money.
This is a familiar premise, one that conjures images of vengeful men with firearms, the type of ordinary summer hit that is quickly forgotten. Luckily for us, Christian Kiefer is no ordinary writer, and this is no ordinary story. Instead we have something compassionate and utterly human, a work that digs deep into the complexities of friendship and memory with precise and vivid language. As we drift through time and space, from the fragile comfort of Bill Reed’s present to the red hot grit of his upbringing in Reno, we learn more about these two men.
Young Bill is impressionable and has struggled with addiction and guilt throughout his short life, longing for meaning and an escape from a minimum wage future in America’s Biggest Little City. Young Rick is fierce and loyal; another youth dealt a bad deck of cards with few viable options. They grow up side-by-side in a bleak world of trailer parks and casinos, a stark contrast to the dense woods of Idaho that will mark Bill’s future. They steal. They start fights. When a desperate robbery goes wrong, and Rick needs the loyalty of a friend, Bill sees nothing but an opportunity to disappear.
Kiefer is a graceful wordsmith, and his feeling for these characters is made apparent by his luminous and compassionate prose. Despite what some may say, “The Animals” is no thriller. His prose is deeply poetic, almost experimental, with every sentence serving as a piece of art in its own right (there is a chapter told through a bear’s perspective that is particularly moving). It is a work that uses the usual tropes of noir and crime novels to say something very important about humanity and existence. The message is clear. Sometimes as you go through life, you make decisions that surprise you, you say things you don’t mean and suddenly, you realize you aren’t the person you thought you were. You are a stranger to yourself, and there’s no turning back. You are one of “The Animals.”
Logan Farmer is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path.
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