Kristen Arnett has amassed a large following on Twitter, in part for refusing to reveal the location of a lizard to 7-Eleven's corporate Twitter account because she didn't want to "narc" on her new reptilian friend. She had met the lizard in the course of her regular wine run to the convenience store.
The only thing more Florida than that is her debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, which has caught fire in the press. This thing was written up in the New York Freaking Times and the God Damned Washington Post. National Public Radio described it using the most NPR phrase imaginable: "a satisfying journey." Not bad for a debut novel on a small Portland press like Tin House.
This deeply weird and deeply queer novel begins with one of the most gorgeously and gorily rendered first chapters I've read. Jessa-Lynn Morton's father kills himself in his own taxidermy shop, leaving her to carry on the family business and to deal with the family's damage, which is both extensive and embarrassing.
Dad has left the taxidermy shop in the red, and her mom's new habit doesn't appear to be helping. In response to the suicide, she has begun ripping up the inventory and transforming it into her art, which involves arranging the mounted animals into acrobatic sex positions and decorating them with ball gags and dildos.
To compound the grief, Jessa-Lynn still pines for Brynn, a longtime secret lover who eventually married and procreated with Jessa-Lynn's brother. But Jessa-Lynn is also falling for Lucinda, an apparently icy art-gallery owner who has (much to Jessa-Lynn's chagrin) taken an interest in her mom's taxidermy sex art.
Though they sometimes slow the pace of the story, Arnett's rich, cinematic descriptions of scenes that don't typically warrant rich, cinematic descriptions set the reader firmly in the swamp-heat of Central Florida.
The paragraphs of description also give Arnett room to flex her keen observational humor. She makes you feel like a Florida insider, bestowing a knowing affection on the bad taste and brashness of her characters. An apron reading "LORD & MASTER OF THE GRILLE" and a plaque reading "BEST OF CENTRAL FLORIDA TAXIDERMY" —along with 100 percent of the dialogue in this book—will make you want to crack open a cheap beer and stick your feet in the kiddie pool.
The freakishly Freudian swirl of sex and death keeps the tension high. And Arnett's literary elevation of the grotesque smartly embodies the primary philosophical question underlying the story. Jessa-Lynn and her father use honed craft and hard work to create pristine mounts of animals as they would have ideally appeared in the forest, while Jessa-Lynn's mother rips up all of that work and shows the animals mid-coitus, with all the blood and guts and tooth and claw of life that repulses and weirdly attracts us.
Which object most accurately represents humanity, then? The self ass-up with a ball gag stuffed in its mouth, or the self helping her friend cope with grief? Mostly Dead Things gives us both, and along the way establishes Arnett as one of the South's new top talents.
(Arnett reads tonight, Mon July 22nd, at 7:30 pm at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, free)