Post-40 Bloomers

If I Could Talk to Animals: American Bill Broun’s Thoroughly British Novel

By posted at 6:00 am on November 11, 2016 0

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

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“The massive black hole in our understanding of the creatures with whom we share the planet, as vast and compelling a mystery as the universe, is intolerable, not just because we can’t talk to the animals, but because it reminds us of how we can’t really know any other consciousness, not even those of our species…It reminds us that each of us is inescapably alone inside our heads.” — Jenny Diski, What I Don’t Know About Animals (Yale University Press, 2010)

My dog and I understand each other well. We’ve been together 11 years, longer than a lot of couples I know. But although I am not under any illusions that when I speak to her she’s going to answer, there was a time in my life when you could easily have convinced me otherwise.

As an American child living in Israel during my formative years, I hated the guttural sounds of Hebrew and refused to learn it. It was the late-’60s; no one insisted that language immersion was good for children. Instead, my parents enrolled me in the best English-speaking preschool in Tel Aviv — an Anglican school — and supplied me with a steady stream of books and comics from England, which I consumed one after the other.

covercovercoverMuch in the same way that Konrad Lorenz imprinted himself on his gaggles of baby geese, my first reading experiences stamped on me, for most of my childhood, a fervent love of animals and the accompanying wish to communicate with them; and, in my earliest years, I suspect I thought I could. In those days, British children’s literature overflowed with wonderful talking beasts: Beatrix Potter, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Paddington Bear, Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books, Tove Jansson’s The Moomins series, and The Chronicles of Narnia, to name a few. Thrown into parochial school with no prior religious instruction, I sorted out my own theistic system in a way that made perfect sense: God, in my four-year-old mind, was a benevolent, gray-muzzled German shepherd.

covercoverWe returned to the States as I started first grade, and I went on to discover American animal books. But something was missing. Books like Albert Payson Terhune’s dog books, Call of the Wild, and Black Beauty told of good mute beasts, loyal and ready to serve their human companions, but I wanted communion. I wanted my animals to talk back.

Although I had no way of knowing it at the time, the tradition of articulate fictional animals is rooted in a deep national nostalgia for the Greenwood, the archetypal forest of British lore. The kings of old hunted enchanted stags in the Greenwood; Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest was a version, and the Arden Forest where As You Like It takes place. And the Greenwood is home to the mythical Green Man — a mysterious and leafy being who stood for fertility, nature, and magic.

For all the American mythos of celebrating nature and the song of the Plains, animals have always been more a source of food or cheap labor than conversation here. The English got their animals right, as far as I was concerned, and I kept that ideal close to my heart.

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As the son of a British father and American mother, Bill Broun, author of Night of the Animals, did not encounter a particularly high level of Anglo-American cultural conflict growing up in Ohio. His mother liked popular American novels and knew her classics, he recalls, and his father read the Akron Beacon Journal and listened to the BBC World Service on his shortwave. “I’m very much [an American] child of the late-’70s and early-’80s,” he explains. “My literature was Weird War Tales and Sgt. Rock comics and a set of World Book encyclopedias.”

But a family trip back to England, he says, changed his life. “I met all my English relatives,” Broun recalls. “I saw my granddaddy’s pauper’s grave, at a little country church in Worcestershire. It disturbed the fuck out of me. It was a mound. No headstone…I saw my first Aston Villa soccer match, saw London, saw Scotland, and came back to Ohio obsessed with my ties to England.”

Broun attended University College London and Miami University in Ohio, eventually earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston. In 2002, the year he began writing Night of the Animals, Broun was a resident fellow at Yale University; he has worked as an editor, reviewer, and journalist, and is currently associate professor of English at East Stroudsburg University, Penn.

But while the novel — a tale of one man’s odyssey to free the animals in the London Zoo — was written on these shores, “The plain fact is,” Broun says, “I barely thought of Americans.” Night of the Animals, which was published by the U.S. imprint Ecco in July, is set very firmly in a future England and informed by British folk tales, religion, politics, identity, and even vernacular — as well as a dark dystopian vision, black humor, and some beautiful, pyrotechnic writing. “I consider it a British novel through and through,” he says. “Although ambitious in a way that’s not quite like a lot of British lit today.”

It reflects Broun’s identification with his family’s working class background too; his father, a machinist, left school at 14 to support his family. “I wanted to tell a huge, authentic English story,” Broun adds, “and accurately portray a vanished and vanishing world and a class of people today who often don’t make it into the British literary scene.”

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The night in question takes place in 2052. England is no longer part of the European Union (which, keep in mind, wasn’t even a gleam in Parliament’s eye in 2002 when Broun began writing the book). The country, ruled by the oligarch Henry IX — Harry9, familiarly — has reverted to a pre-Victorian divide between the new aristocrats and the massive underclass known as Indigents after a series of social reforms in the 2020s. The remains of the working class have given up their right to vote in return for dormitory housing, basic meals, jobs on government soybean farms.

Broun’s protagonist, Cuthbert Handley, is one of Britain’s many have-nots. At 90 — 2052’s new 70 or so, thanks to synthetic body part replacement — he is homeless, ill, overweight, addicted to the legal drug Flôt, and deeply disturbed by the disappearance of his older brother Drystan when they were children. He is also gripped by the belief that the animals in the zoo are talking to him, begging him to set them free.

He has a point. Earth’s animal population is dwindling, and as the last repository of “whole” animals, rather than genomic clones, the London Zoo has become the target for the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, which is readying itself to die as a massive comet nears the Earth’s orbit. The cultists are killing off the world’s animals so that the accompanying aliens will make no mistake as to whose souls to occupy. The zoo is simultaneously “an ark, and a death row prison.” Cuthbert intends to liberate its inmates — and, perhaps, find his long-lost brother.

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It’s immediately clear that Cuthbert, blundering through the Zoo’s underbrush late at night with a pair of bolt-cutters and a maintenance dose of Flôt, is not in his right mind. Yet at the same time, he may or may not have inherited what his old-country gran called the Wonderments — special old-time powers, passed down through every other generation, which include the ability to understand animals.

The animal language has been dying out for some time, she tells young Cuthbert and Drystan during a family visit to the countryside:

“My grandfather used to say that when the animals go quate [quiet], it means Jack in the Green’s right ‘round the corner…The Green Man. The Lush One. Robin Goodfellow. Puck. The Christ of Otters.”

“Otters? I don’t like otters. I like tigers. Can’t we have tigers?” asked Drystan.

But when the boys venture deep into the woods that afternoon and tumble into a deep brook, it’s an otter six-year-old Cuthbert sees — or thinks he sees — as Drystan disappears beneath the water and Cuthbert himself nearly drowns: “a fluid face, a being of brown and white and green wearing a momentary smile, then anger, a pale hand — or a paw? — reaching toward him, desperately.”

And it’s otters that haunt Cuthbert through the rest of his life, as he becomes less and less functional in the grip of his loss and grief and further in the thrall of his animal visions and his conviction that Drystan is not dead — that someday they will be reunited, and, of all the world’s creatures, it’s otters that hold the key.

Trying to work up the nerve to kill himself became compulsive; he would also try, when he remembered, to ‘beg forgiveness’ from a Christ of Otters. He forced himself to picture this robed messiah of all murdered animals, a gimlet-eyed and long-whiskered Jesus with a long pearly claw on each soft finger.

From his beginnings as a bright and promising young lad, Cuthbert evolves, eventually, into a crazy old man who talks to animals. “Words did not pass through snout, proboscis, or mandible. But nonetheless, the animals asserted themselves toward him. They sent messages, some limpid, some inscrutable, but all appreciable.”

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Broun doesn’t see himself as an “animal person” in the traditional sense. “My feelings about animals fluctuate always,” he says, “and my relationship with them has always been kind of convoluted. There’s part of me, a brutal, on-the-farm side, I suppose, that can’t stand when people fetishize animals over people.”

What resonates for him where animals are concerned, Broun explains, is their place in the universe: “I do adore their beauty and spirits. To me, animals are part of God’s creation, and they’re magical — but so are trees and clouds and shooting stars.”

Yet Broun’s language reveals a deep respect for, and attention to, the fishes of the sea and the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. Cuthbert communes with penguins, lions, psychotic chimpanzees, all wonderfully rendered in Broun’s bestiary: a buck’s “great rack spread like a huge bone map of anger.” The zoo’s jackals are “all tangible dog-pieces darting about a sparse pen like small rages on legs.” A mournful gorilla ends up “knucklewalking down the middle of Baker Street, throwing forward his furry black arms, as big and strong as mastiffs.”

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Along with its celebration of our fellow inhabitants of the earth, Night of the Animals unashamedly holds up faith as a necessary condition for survival — a character’s belief in being able to converse with animals, and an author’s faith in a weird and wonderful vision. Broun twice rewrote the book almost completely during its 14-year gestation: “I felt like I was being tested or punished or doing penance or something…I felt like God was on my back, with one foot on my neck, making me work.”

Cuthbert admits that driving his mission is a fierce desire for redemption. He has not always placed the well-being of animals above his own, he admits to Muezza, the wonderfully Machiavellian little sand cat who befriends (and converses at great length with) him, but was cruel and callous to beasts, small children, and old men in his youth.

It has destroyed my soul, and damned me to alcoholism, then to Flôtism. I thought that by letting the jackals out and whatnot, and then you too, it might help.

Recovery often calls on belief in a power greater than oneself. Cuthbert’s higher power, of course, is a zoo full of animals. In particular, the Jesus of the Otters has become inextricably bound up in his disordered mind with Drystan’s disappearance and, he is convinced, eventual resurrection.

Given Cuthbert’s own imprinting, his odd theology makes sense (certainly to a reader whose personal deity was once a German shepherd). And if ever there was a man in need of a higher power, Cuthbert is it. His drug of choice, the legal and intensely addictive Flôt, is another royally sanctioned form of crowd control in 2052:

When Flôt was good, it was hands down the best legal hallucinogenic and sedative on earth. It offered more than intoxication, more than a release. It took you rippling across whole new planets of purple-white euphoria.

One of Flôt’s most devious properties is that anyone who successfully manages to kick the drug will experience a second withdrawal some 10 years later that is nearly impossible to withstand. Notes Broun, who has 25 years of recovery under his own belt, “I wanted partly to portray the recovery process itself as something that remains precarious and miraculous over the long haul…Whenever I hear about a great recovery story, my instant thought is, great, but come see me in 10 years.”

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Night of the Animals is a tale of recovery and redemption, though not the kind we’re used to. In the end, Cuthbert’s mission creates more havoc than liberty. Few of the animals are better off than before. But he does, in fact, free the otters:

[T]he entire romp of the London Zoo’s small species of otter appeared and leaped down through the gap, pouring out in one quivering, shiny river-bottom-colored whoosh. It was as though they were, together, the last and most precious thing in England to be emptied from it, a half-water and half-earth being made of golden-brown jewels and smelling of stolen foreign flowers.

A young police officer named Astrid Sullivan — a recovering Flôt addict who is working a Flôter’s Anonymous program and actively battling her demons — answers the call to investigate a disturbance at the zoo and falls in with Cuthbert despite her misgivings. The two become an unexpected team. And for a moment, as the long night ends, the spirit of the Greenwood makes an appearance, transforming Astrid, briefly:

It resembled Astrid, but it was larger, untamed, like a wild, long-limbed yew tree spotted with tiny red berries. Astrid’s long black hair seemed to have turned a golden green, and floated in the air…sparking little fires from which baby kestrels and whipping adders and speeding tiny stoats burst forth.

(“I did wonder occasionally if Americans would get the Green Man stuff,” notes Broun, “but I wasn’t writing for Americans, and when I started to see how widespread Green Man was — what with the figure of Al-Khidr in Islam, for instance — I started to see that it was truly, in a Jungian sense, archetypal.”)

Is Cuthbert’s night of the animals an archetypal fable? A hallucination? A miracle? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, and this may be Broun’s point. What is important is that Cuthbert has made connections — with his beloved animals, and with Astrid, as a true friend — something Cuthbert has lacked all this time.

For it doesn’t matter so much where you place your faith, but that you place it at all: in God, in the person standing next to you, or the dog at your feet. What I loved best about the British books I read as a child was how close to the surface of everyday life the mysticism lurked. In the absence of any other belief system, that was more than enough. In the absence of anything Cuthbert might have to hope for in his world, he can talk to the animals. And — because Broun has given us a thoroughly British novel — they can talk to him.





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