“You don’t mess with Box Elder people you dumb fuck.”
23-year-old twins Wyatt and Lucy Smith are just scraping by, alone on their Utah ranch since the death of their father. A ranch they’re fixing to lose after an ill-fated encounter by Wyatt with a girl half demon on an early morning hunt leaves them short enough cattle to sink the whole venture. And so Wyatt leaves the ranch on a mad quest to hunt down the girl and get restitution somehow, anyhow.
Things get awful bloody from there as Wyatt encounters bikers, cartels, and drug manufacturers and the girl that may be the most dangerous of all of them with nothing but a rusty shotgun, a glass eye, and indomitable human spirit. All set against a sere, windblown Utah seemingly empty of anything but coyote, cattle, crank, and cowboys carrying assault rifles.
Rough Animals is Rae DelBianco’s debut. And what a damn debut it is.
DelBianco’s prose is beautiful. I’ve seen it compared to the prose of Cormac McCarthy. DelBianco’s is more accessible, if not as powerful.
The influence of Cormac McCarthy is obvious—maybe too strong an influence. Rough Animals’ wears it a bit too openly on its sleeve. The plot parallels No Country for Old Men in ways and it shares its neo-Western trappings, the girl like the Judge from Blood Meridian is almost supernatural in nature (“she proved she is a thing not of the earth that we know, and one whose ways no nature-fearing man should venture to interfere with”), and the ranch scenes are strongly reminiscent of the Border Trilogy. Hardly a bad thing, but better buried so that just a suggestion of the shape is left on the surface.
I am allergic to flashbacks, but the flashbacks featuring life on the ranch grew on me. Like McCarthy, DelBianco writes with aching beauty about work. I saw her compared to Ron Rash too, which I don’t really see, but this part does recall favorably Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.
Rough Animals is unexpectedly lurid. It isn’t lurid where we’ve been primed by contemporary literary fiction for it to be lurid, and it is lurid where we don’t expect it to be. Which maybe pulls it away from “literary” in the direction of “pulp,” but for me that is a feature, not a bug. And these days I place increasingly great store by books that are unexpected. And given the heavy influence of McCarthy, Rough Animals in particular benefits from unexpectedness.
I can’t say much more without spoiling the sauce, but both of the above paragraphs are ingredients in an elegantly structured plot. One that is unexpected but seemingly inevitable in retrospect, wholly satisfying, and deeply melancholy.
I have many, many more thoughts about how great this book is, but very few that I can safely give in a non-spoiler review. So I will leave it at that. I really, really look forward to seeing what DelBianco does in the future.
4 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: The publisher sent me a review copy of Rough Animals.
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