By David Canfield
June 11, 2019 at 11:30 AM EDT
Tin House Books

Mostly Dead Things

B+
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  • Book
Genre

Jessa-Lynn Morton has a new crush: an elegant, mysterious gallery owner named Lucinda Rex. All long fingers and nails, nice clothes and shoes, Lucinda had earlier dropped into Jessa’s Central Florida taxidermy shop and commissioned a stuffed boar for $3,000. In delivering her the boar with her brother, Milo, Jessa realizes how drawn she is to Lucinda — and immediately imagines how she might “disassemble” her. “Sometimes I hated the way I was,” Jessa muses. “That I could look at an incredibly lovely woman and picture her mounted like a dead animal made me wonder what was wrong with my brain.”

Evidently, the same could be asked of Kristen Arnett. Life is complicated, but in her debut novel Mostly Dead Things, it’s got nothing on the dead: presented for all to see, macabre and refined. Jessa, a lesbian drifting through her 30s, has taken over her father’s taxidermy shop in the wake of his suicide. Family and business intertwine: Suddenly, Jessa’s troubled nephew is an employee-in-training, her mother is dissecting the shop’s animals for experimental art, and yes, she’s driving dead boars over to snazzy galleries with her sluggish brother in tow. Surrounded by animal carcasses, Jessa is left to see those still breathing with fresh eyes.

Fundamentally, this is a rock-solid family novel, brightened by its eccentric milieu. Jessa goes on the journey of rediscovering her family, specifically her mother, who leans into her creative side in widowhood. (“My entire adult life that man told me what to do,” she tells Jessa.) The book is very Florida, very gay — hot to the touch, in other words — and Arnett leads with sharp character development. The author demonstrates keen judgment by getting out of crazy’s way. One masterclass in deadpan description surfaces early on, when Jessa encounters her mother’s grief-motivated “displays” laid out in the shop: “A raccoon I’d mounted the week prior gowned in a satin negligee, bridal veil hanging delicately over its face. Its uplifted hand gestured sweetly at the bear, standing beside the bed in a roomy pair of custom boxer shorts made from two pillowcases.”

The prose could still use a jolt. Dead Things may be animated by graphic explainers on animal stuffing and cutting analyses of family dynamics, but plot isn’t Arnett’s strong suit. She prefers stepping back and allowing Jessa to survey the action. Always a woman of few words, Jessa is well-drawn, nuanced and thoughtful, but her “simple, no mess” philosophy can turn tedious in narration, especially around Dead Things’ bulky midpoint. You almost wish the book were even weirder — for a moment or two where Arnett would really unleash on the madness of her premise.

Dead Things is, instead, almost achingly warm. In its richest thread, Jessa unpacks her relationship with her brother, Milo, suffused as it is with love and resentment and a bone-deep mutual understanding. The two grew up in love with the same girl — Brynn, Jessa’s adolescent fixation and Milo’s eventual wife. She abruptly leaves both of them in adulthood. “I could barely stomach my own memories,” Jessa says. “I didn’t want to deal with his.” Jessa then reveals, deeper into the book, that she’d “given [Brynn] up” to Milo, since she couldn’t be what she needed or wanted. The reflective, inquisitive quality of Arnett’s writing is key to its success. She’s a natural novelist because of her curiosity — about work and space, gender and family. Arnett interrogates how Jessa and Milo drifted apart, why Jessa never noticed her mother’s passions, what it means to fall in love. She keeps her eyes and her heart open. That’s what good fiction is all about.

Indeed, Arnett gives no element of her novel the short shrift. Her sex scenes are steamy, volatile, full — a treatment of lesbian romance that feels refreshing and rare. Her Florida is transitory, artificial, amnestic, in which towns “pave over everything so they could forget what had been there before.” The taxidermy setting is ripe for insanity, but crucially, it’s handled subtly. In her grief, Jessa delves into the trade that she watched her father master: “I’d grown up playing with cattle skulls and freeze-dried mice, casually digging my hands into bowls of shark teeth because I liked the sharp feel of them between my fingers.”

Arnett treats the shop like work, too, mundane and automatic and mentally consuming. She invests in Jessa’s relationship to the muggy, fluorescently-lit place where she vied to connect to her dad. “I worked until my hands slipped and I nicked the pads of my fingers,” Jessa says months after he dies. “Gutted fish until my clothes stunk of the lake. Scraped until my muscles screamed. Then I could sleep again and wake the next day, thrust back into my endless cycle of trying, trying, trying. Being what he needed.” So the heart of Dead Things beats: to the drum of the living. B+

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