The Animals by Christian Kiefer – reviewed by Roger Trapp

The Animals

by Christian Kiefer

The Animals-Christian Kiefer

Anybody really surprised by what is going on in this US Presidential election season has not been reading enough American fiction. Not the stuff coming out of the Eastern college towns, but the eruptions from the Heartland. In the pages of the likes of Ron Rash, Daniel Woodrell, Denis Johnson and now Christian Kiefer there are many and varied depictions of people for whom the American Dream has long been – well, just that, a dream. With their slick suits, manicures and immaculate haircuts or – when slumming it – smart casual chinos and blazers, the establishment politicians lost touch with their constituents long ago. So, while it might seem odd for the Dispossessed to find a champion in a billionaire who wears sharper suits than anybody and is famous for an extravagant hairstyle, it presumably plays to a feeling of hopelessness if not a desire to upset the powers-that-be.

Certainly, the closest the central protagonist in Kiefer’s powerfully unsettling novel comes to the American Dream is working in the workshop of a car dealership. Initially, most of the rest of his time is spent on those habits of the downhearted – drinking, drug taking, hitching up with unsuitable members of the opposite sex and, since we are in Nevada, gambling. Setting the book in the strange desert landscape of Reno, a sort of poor man’s Las Vegas, enables Kiefer to paint vivid contrasts between the rough trailer parks occupied by the protagonist and his friends and the gaudy casinos with their shimmery promise of hope. Anybody recognising a parallel in the music of the alt-country rock band Richmond Fontaine and the fiction of frontman Willy Vlautin will not be far off the mark: Vlautin is name-checked in the acknowledgements.

When the action moves to Idaho and the unlikely location of a wild animal rescue centre the backdrop becomes even tougher. Kiefer’s anti-hero might have a shot at redemption, but he has to battle with an even less forgiving landscape without the relief provided by Reno’s tacky glamour. Not as fashionable as other mountain states, such as Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, Idaho nevertheless has the ability to test even the toughest soul. Finding out whether Reed has what it takes to overcome his surroundings as well as to make peace with his past and come to some kind of arrangement with the mainstream is what makes this book a compelling read and gives it the feel of a thriller. And, of course, along the way we receive plenty of insights into why so many Americans feel the country is not working for them. No wonder the author comes highly praised by the likes of Richard Ford and T.C. Boyle.

£8.99 Liveright/Norton
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